Barclays PLC has installed devices that track how often bankers are at their desks.

Managers were peppered with queries when investment bank staff in London discovered black boxes stuck to the underside of their desks in recent months, according to several Barclays employees who asked not to be identified speaking about their workplace. They turned out to be tracking devices called OccupEye, which use heat and motion sensors to record how long employees are spending at their posts.

Cost savers, or Big Brother?
Union officials who represent Barclays workers say they “will keep a close eye on the situation to make sure that the sensors are never used to spy on staff or as a means to measure productivity.” Bloomberg News

There was a “phased rollout” of the devices, and Barclays staff and the Unite union were notified before they were installed, although the bank did not send out a specific memo about them, according to spokesman Tom Hoskin. The Barclays employees said they don’t remember being informed about the boxes, but spokespeople for the bank said there have been no official human-resources complaints.

The devices, made by Blackburn, U.K.-based Cad-Capture, are pitched as a way for companies to find out how they can reduce office space, providing a multicolored dashboard to show managers which workstations are unoccupied and to analyze usage trends.

“The sensors aren’t monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage,” the bank said in an emailed statement. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”

Hot-desking may appeal as a cost-cutting strategy to Barclays Chief Executive Officer Jes Staley, who has said there are “tremendous savings” to be made by reducing the bank’s real-estate footprint. In December, Barclays sublet office space in London’s Canary Wharf district to the government, saving about 35 million pounds ($45 million) a year.

Investment banks are increasingly using technology to keep tabs on how their staff spend their time. Barclays has introduced a computer system to track how much is earned from every client, allowing bosses to determine how much time traders, analysts and salespeople should spend with each customer.

“We were given assurances that the boxes did not monitor individuals or their performance,” Unite national officer Dominic Hook said in a statement. The union “will keep a close eye on the situation to make sure that the sensors are never used to spy on staff or as a means to measure productivity.”

Bloomberg News