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Navigating Privacy Concerns to Equip Workers With GPS

August 4, 2005
Related Topics: Internet, Partnership, Featured Article

Steve Poppe had heard all the horror stories: highly publicized demonstrations, angry unions and charges of privacy infringement. So when it came time for Poppe, chief information officer at Roto-Rooter, to supply the Cincinnati-based plumbing company’s service technicians with cell phones equipped with Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, he was not about to pull any punches.

    "We just decided that we were going to be honest and upfront with employees," says Poppe, who led the company’s implementation of GPS-enabled cell phones in early 2003. Today, more than 200 of the company’s 1,500 technicians are using the location-tracking technology to speed up response times to customer calls. By 2007, Poppe expects all 1,500 of Roto-Rooter’s technicians to be equipped with GPS-enabled cell phones.

    Developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, GPS is a navigational system consisting of satellites that orbit the Earth. These satellites send information that, when received by a device mounted on a vehicle or attached to a cell phone, pinpoints the recipient’s exact location.

    Roto-Rooter is one of a growing number of companies to successfully deploy GPS without stirring employee accusations of Orwellian surveillance. That wasn’t always the case. The short history of GPS in the workplace is rife with battles.

    Snowplow drivers in Boston staged a protest in 2003 after the Massachusetts Highway Department ordered them to carry GPS-enabled cell phones as way of gauging employee productivity. And only after waging a strike in 1997 did the Teamsters eventually reach a contract with United Parcel Service permitting GPS tracking of shipments--on the condition that GPS data would not be used in employee evaluations.

    However, as the number of employees who spend more time on the road than in a cubicle grows from 92 million in 2001 to 105 million this year, and as GPS prices plummet, companies are discovering new ways to quell employees’ fears of privacy infringement. By creating incentives for adopting GPS tools, employers are gaining acceptance from their field workers while improving productivity and reducing costs.

Upside for employees
    An honest approach was only part of Roto-Rooter’s strategy for persuading its technicians to carry GPS-enabled cell phones. The plumbing company’s branch managers also emphasized the benefits its technicians would reap from the satellite-based technology.

    In the past, Roto-Rooter’s technicians would have to manually report a completed job to a dispatcher and then wait by the phone to receive a new assignment. Today, using a combination of Nextel i58sr phones and etrace software from Gearworks, dispatchers can track the location of all the company’s technicians on color-coded digital fleet maps. Roto-Rooter’s GPS system is linked to a series of mobile printers that technicians use to generate invoices at client sites. The moment a technician begins to generate an invoice, the GPS system detects that a technician is close to completing a job and automatically notifies the dispatch center. In addition, technicians rely on the GPS system to obtain directions to the next assignment.

    By creating a more efficient job-dispatching system, Roto-Rooter’s technicians are able to serve 20 percent more customers--a big boon for the plumbing company’s commission-earning employees.

    "When the employee sees a clear benefit--a way to enhance their own productivity--they’re much more accepting than when GPS is employed as a way to keep track of the employee," says David Linsalata, an IDC research analyst.

    While replacing pagers with Nextel phones is helping Roto-Rooter shave $172,000 in pager costs, Poppe says that the company has focused on the benefits to employees rather than the money it is saving and the productivity gains. For example, during the project’s introduction, Poppe says the company purposely identified employees who were struggling with the technology and required hands-on training, especially "old-timers" who feared that GPS would render them "obsolete."

    Roto-Rooter could have called upon Gearworks to host training sessions. Instead, Poppe says the company opted for "a personal touch" by having its in-house training group travel from branch to branch, conducting in-depth presentations and offering face-to-face explanations of GPS and its purported benefits.

    Another company, Collegeboxes, also wanted to implement a GPS program. The company, based in Watertown, Massachusetts, offers shipping and storage services to more than 6,000 students from 35 colleges and universities across the country. These services range from shipping students’ belongings to a dormitory at the beginning of the school year to storing knickknacks over the summer. Collegeboxes’ 10 in-house call center operators communicate with a total of 25 GPS-equipped crews from 15 moving companies nationwide whose workers handle upward of 1,000 moves on any given day.

    Prior to adopting GPS, "the biggest challenge we had was effective communication between (our call center operators) and the actual moving crews," Collegeboxes CEO Scott Neuberger says. "Our only link for communication was the moving company’s director of operations."

    As a result, receiving status updates and offering customers real-time information on when they could expect movers to show up was taking as long as 30 minutes--a "ridiculous" timeframe, says Collegeboxes vice president Josh Kowitt. GPS, on the other hand, promised to speed up response times to customer queries.

    However, because Collegeboxes oversees student logistics while actual moving services are subcontracted to local vendors, Kowitt recognized that adding a GPS device to the movers’ existing arsenal of pagers and cell phones was "probably asking too much."

    So Kowitt, along with Neuberger, researched "everybody that’s out there" in search of a GPS vendor whose solution could be supported by Nextel phones, which are a popular device among movers and drivers. In early 2005, Collegeboxes put in place a location-based service from Xora, a company in Mountain View, California, to track and manage its mover staff. Each of a dozen moving companies was provided with one or more GPS-enabled phones running the Xora service, which gave Collegeboxes’ call center operators online access to maps and reports that show the status of movers throughout the day.

Perhaps the simplest way companies have learned to reap the rewards of GPS without prompting employee backlash is to encourage workers to click on a device’s off button.

    By taking the extra time to introduce a user-friendly GPS tool, Collegeboxes has been able to increase on-time pickup and deliveries by 50 percent, whittle down a four-hour delivery window to less than 45 minutes and cut customer service calls without receiving a single complaint from employees or subcontractors, says Kowitt.

    To sweeten its GPS offering to subcontractors, Collegeboxes also sends text messages to students’ cell phones, updating them on the mover’s location. Students then know when a mover is about to arrive at their dormitory and won’t cause delays by stepping out for a sandwich.

    Another GPS believer is SuperShuttle. The Phoenix-based company provides door-to-door ground transportation to and from 23 U.S. airports. Because the company’s 1,000 drivers are independent business owners, SuperShuttle turned to a GPS program that would arm its self-employed fleet with as much tracking information as its own dispatchers have. In 2003, SuperShuttle instituted Vettro’s Fleet Optimization application on Nextel phones. Today, dispatchers can assign routes based upon the real-time location and status of drivers. Every three minutes, a driver’s phone automatically updates the dispatch center on the vehicle’s GPS coordinates.

    In turn, SuperShuttle’s dispatch system uses this vehicle information to determine which routes to send to a driver’s phone. The driver receives a summary of these routes, including which sector the pickups are in, the total fares for all the pickups in the route, and the number of passengers.

    By giving drivers and dispatchers the same information, a driver can "pick the highest fare or he can pick the closest one to him," says Mike Hogan, SuperShuttle’s chief information officer. After all, Hogan says, "If all we did was use GPS to track drivers, they probably wouldn’t like it very much."

Abusive practices
Companies such as Roto-Rooter, Collegeboxes and SuperShuttle may be raising the bar on GPS technology’s applications in the workplace, but there’s still room for improvement, says Jeremy Gruber, a legal director at the nonprofit National Workrights Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

    "There are plenty of employers who are using GPS quite unfairly," Gruber says. Introducing GPS without notifying employees, monitoring workers during off hours and using GPS data to set unreasonable quotas can "diminish the inherent dignity of an employee," He says. Exacerbating this situation is the fact that there are no federal laws protecting workers when their employers use GPS or related location-tracking technology, Gruber says.

    Although it’s still too early for there to be data on how effectively companies are adopting GPS, analysts suggest that more recent experiences are likely to reflect those of Roto-Rooter, Collegeboxes and SuperShuttle. "There does seem to be more of an awareness of privacy concerns overall," IDC’s Linsalata says.

    As GPS grows in popularity, more companies are learning to stave off accusations of privacy infringement and unfair treatment. In addition to highlighting the benefits of GPS, providing user-friendly devices and placing GPS data at employees’ fingertips, "it’s absolutely critical to have policies in place" when deploying GPS, Linsalata says. These policies should outline which devices will be equipped with GPS technology, when exactly the employees will be monitored, what information will be gathered and how this information will be used.

    But perhaps the simplest way companies have learned to reap the rewards of GPS without prompting employee backlash is to encourage workers to click on a device’s off button. In the case of Roto-Rooter, for example, employees can exit out of the etrace software application to prevent tracking of their whereabouts without having to turn off their phones. Explicitly permitting employees to control GPS’ tracking capabilities "is the piece that makes it work" for employers and employees alike, Poppe says.

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