In a constant search for productivity, companies have developed more sophisticated ways of tracking you at work. But, asks Ryan Derousseau, is it even effective?

Do you feel as if there’s always someone watching you at work?

You might be right: the way companies monitor employees has broadened beyond simply requiring workers to tap in and out of an office building. Advances in technology and a hunger for data have now created a market for devices that can measure workers’ movements, fitness and even sleep – all in the name of productivity.

Take Humanyze, for example, a start-up based in Boston, Massachusetts, which supplies companies with employee ID badges replete with inbuilt biometric measuring capabilities.

Technology within the badges tracks everything from movements and interactions around the office to lengths of conversations and voice tone

A plethora of tech within the badges tracks everything from movements and interactions around the office, to lengths of conversations, and even voice tone. CEO Ben Waber told Techworld earlier this year that microphones within the badges can process vocal information to detect whether a person dominates conversations, as well as tone, volume and speed of speech.

With these, the company aims to change the traditional role of management consultants in the workplace. According to Humanyze, these “people analytics,” can help measure everything from how often workers are disrupted, to the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion programmes.

The people being measured by such tracking devices may not feel quite so enthused, however. Last year, workplace sensors drew criticism when journalists at the Daily Telegraph newspaper learned that a tracking device had been added to their desks by senior management. The product, OccupEye, has a sensor which picks up on body heat, letting organisations know when employees are at a desk and how often people get up and move around.

In the wake of criticism from the National Union of Journalists, the sensors were removed. “The right to be consulted on new procedures governing such data is enshrined in law,” assistant general secretary Seamus Dooley said at the time. “The NUJ will resist Big Brother-style surveillance in the newsroom.”

Uncharted territory

Companies have long had the ability to monitor email or phone conversations. But as technology improves, it creates more opportunities for companies to keep an eye on workers in unprecedented ways, raising more and more concerns about privacy protection.

Increasingly, people use personal phones and laptops for work (one survey by US security firm TrustLook found 70% of respondents did just that). The practice, known as BYOD, or “bring your own device”, helps companies keep technology costs down. However, in some cases corporate data security policies can give organisations the ability to see other information on these personal devices.

45% of companies said tracking service technicians was a key strategy in improving field service

Where driving is a big part of the job, GPS and sensors in phones can be used to track workers’ whereabouts – and even, in some cases, their driving behaviour. Companies say it helps them improve performance: in one 2012 study by technology and services firm Aberdeen Group, 45% of companies said tracking service technicians was a key strategy in improving field service.

It’s not just phones and laptops we’re now bringing to the office: A boom in wearable technology such as the popular Fitbit has created a growing trend in workplace health tracking – research and consulting firm ABI Research predicts that by 2020, 44 million health-tracking devices will be used by employer wellness plans in the US alone.

Why companies spy

While it’s easy to assume workplace monitoring procedures are keeping tabs on your minute-by-minute activity should your actions need to be used against you, the companies behind these devices say tracking is aimed at improving efficiency, protection and productivity.

For instance, OccupEye’s sensors can’t determine who is sitting at a certain desk or what they are doing. Instead, Neil Steele, who heads sales and marketing at Cad-Capture, OccupEye’s parent company, says its tech aims to help businesses ensure they are “utilising real-estate effectively.” According to Steele, the sensors are useful for firms that implement a hot-desk programme, where employees have no assigned workspace.

For many firms, accessing emails and telephone conversations acts as protection – seeing their employees’ communications can help them prevent conflicts of interest, insider trading, public sharing of sensitive information or other scenarios that could dent the company’s reputation. Reputation protection, after all, can be viewed as revenue protection – global professional services firm Deloitte found that 41% of firms experience revenue loss when suffering damage to the brand’s name.

And then there’s productivity. Tracking employees not only helps “preserve a company reputation regarding who they employ [but also] to ensure employees are doing what they should be work-wise,” says Kirsten Smith, an HR consultant for UK-based face2faceHR.

But does it work?

Improving employee productivity through monitoring requires a thoughtful and tailored approach, as researchers in the US found with a study published last year. The study aimed to see if monitoring would improve hospital caregivers’ compliance with handwashing rules. Handwashing was lagging as workers neared the end of their shifts.

Tracking 5,200 caregivers at 42 hospitals over three years, the researchers found that, under monitoring, the rate of hand washing increased for the first two years, before falling back once monitoring eased. When the monitoring was removed, the hand-washing rate fell below the pre-monitoring levels.

The spying may have improved the routine in the short term, but it did not build a habit. Arguably, it even reversed good habits, replacing the usual internal reasons and incentives for handwashing, such as a genuine desire to protect patients from infection, said Hengchen Dai, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Even when monitoring is embraced by employees as a helping hand in their own pursuit of good health, it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off. San Francisco-based social media firm Buffer found this when workers were given fitness monitors to help monitor their sleeping patterns.

If it’s not something constantly spoken about or monitored, the excitement leveled off - Hailley Griffis

While the company didn’t store or access any of the data, employees were encouraged to share with each other the results and were provided tips to improve sleep patterns. The overall goal was to improve productivity through better sleep. But after the initial push for using the tool, employee participation fell precipitously.

“If it’s not something constantly spoken about or monitored, the excitement leveled off,” says Hailley Griffis, a spokeswoman for the company.

Can your company track you?

The rules for what an employer can or can’t monitor vary depending on where you live.

In the UK, employers should take steps to let staff know that monitoring is happening, what is being monitored and why it is necessary. Employers who can justify monitoring once they have carried out a proper impact assessment will usually not need the consent of individual members of staff.

In the US, employee consent is generally required for employers to collect, use and disclose personal information. Aside from this, the country has few laws governing the tracking of employees, which generally leaves it up to the courts to decide whether an employer’s actions have crossed a line on a case-by-case basis.  

In a handbook on workplace monitoring written by US-based law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP, it states that not only can “an employer’s failure to consider the adverse impact of monitoring interfere with, or ultimately destroy, working relationships. It can also breach legal requirements, and may even amount to a criminal offence.”

The firm cites a case in 2005, where six Finnish executives were given fines or up to ten months’ suspended sentences for illegally keeping logs on emails and phone numbers dialled by employees, in an effort to identify who had leaked information about management disputes to mass media.

Even where employers can justify monitoring, the guide states, they should strike a balance between “the legitimate need to run their businesses in the best way they see fit and respect for their employees’ private information and activities.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.