WALK UP A set of steep stairs next to a vegan Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, and you will see the future of work, or at least one version of it. This is the local office of Humanyze, a firm that provides “people analytics”. It counts several Fortune 500 companies among its clients (though it will not say who they are). Its employees mill around an office full of sunlight and computers, as well as beacons that track their location and interactions. Everyone is wearing an ID badge the size of a credit card and the depth of a book of matches. It contains a microphone that picks up whether they are talking to one another; Bluetooth and infrared sensors to monitor where they are; and an accelerometer to record when they move.

“Every aspect of business is becoming more data-driven. There’s no reason the people side of business shouldn’t be the same,” says Ben Waber, Humanyze’s boss. The company’s staff are treated much the same way as its clients. Data from their employees’ badges are integrated with information from their e-mail and calendars to form a full picture of how they spend their time at work. Clients get to see only team-level statistics, but Humanyze’s employees can look at their own data, which include metrics such as time spent with people of the same sex, activity levels and the ratio of time spent speaking versus listening.

We can see through you

Such insights can inform corporate strategy. For example, according to Mr Waber, firms might see that a management team is communicating only with a couple of departments and neglecting others; that certain parts of a building are underused, so the space should be redesigned; that teams are given the wrong incentives; or that diversity initiatives are not working.

Hitachi, a Japanese conglomerate, sells a similar product, which it has cheerily branded a “happiness meter”. Employee welfare is a particular challenge in Japan, which has a special word, karoshi, for death by overwork. Hitachi’s algorithms infer mood levels from physical movement and pinpoint business problems that might not have been noticed before, says Kazuo Yano, Hitachi’s chief scientist. For example, one manufacturing client found that when young employees spent more than an hour in a meeting, whole teams developed lower morale.

Employers already have vast quantities of data about their workers. “This company knows much more about me than my family does,” says Leighanne Levensaler of Workday, a software firm that predicts which employees are likely to leave, among other things. Thanks to the internet, smartphones and the cloud, employers can already check who is looking at a document, when employees are working and whether they might be stealing company files and contacts. AI will go further, raising concerns about Orwellian snooping by employers on their workers. In January Amazon was granted a pair of patents for wristbands that monitor warehouse workers’ exact location and track their hand movements in real time. The technology will allow the company to gauge their employees’ productivity and accuracy. JD.com, the Chinese e-commerce firm, is starting to experiment with tracking which teams and managers are the most efficient, and using algorithms to predict attrition among workers.

The integration of AI into the workplace will offer some benefits to workers and might even save lives. Companies with a high-risk work environment are starting to use computer vision to check whether employees are wearing appropriate safety gear, such as goggles and gloves, before giving them access to a danger area. Computer vision can also help analyse live video from cameras monitoring factory floors and work environments to detect when something is amiss. Systems like this will become as “commonplace as CCTV cameras are in shops”, says Alastair Harvey of Cortexica, a firm that specialises in building them.

Employees will also be able to track their own movements. Microsoft, the software giant, already offers a programme called MyAnalytics which puts together data from e-mails, calendars and so on to show employees how they spend their time, how often they are in touch with key contacts and whether they multitask too much. It also aggregates the data and offers them to managers of departments so they can see how their teams are doing. “It doesn’t have that ‘big brother’ element. It’s designed to be more productive,” insists Steve Clayton of Microsoft. The idea is that individuals’ data are not given out to managers, though it is not clear whether workers believe that. As part of a broader investment in AI, Microsoft is also starting to use the technology to translate the monthly question-and-answer session held by the company’s boss, Satya Nadella, for its workers worldwide, and analyse employees’ reactions.

It does not take much imagination to see that some companies, let alone governments, could take this information-gathering too far. Veriato, an American firm, makes software that registers everything that happens on an employee’s computer. It can search for signals that may indicate poor productivity and malicious activity (like stealing company records), and scans e-mails to understand how sentiment changes over time. As voiceenabled speakers become more commonplace at work, they can be used to gather ever more data.

This is of particular concern in authoritarian states. In China increasing numbers of firms, and even some cities, use cameras to identify employees for the purpose of giving them access to buildings. More troubling, the government is planning to compile a “social credit” score for all its citizens, pooling online data about them to predict their future behaviour.

All this may require a new type of agreement between employers and employees. Most employment contracts in America give employers blanket rights to monitor employees and collect data about them, but few workers are aware of that. Mr Waber of Humanyze thinks these data should have better legal protection, especially in America (Europe has stronger privacy laws).

As more companies rely on outside firms to collect and crunch employee information, privacy concerns will increase, and employees may feel violated if they do not think they have given their consent to sharing their data. Laszlo Bock, who used to run Google’s human-resources department and now heads a startup focused on work, reckons that “it’s going to play out in a bad way before it plays out in a good way.”