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Turn Here: GPS Tracking Gaining Acceptance

In the early days, employees feared that GPS monitoring was a form of 'Big Brother' watching, but workers are becoming more accepting of tracking since companies are no longer just using the information as a threat to ensure workers stay on course.

March 7, 2013

Field technicians working for Healthcare Receivable Specialists Inc. go to the homes of hospital patients and help them fill out paperwork to obtain Medicaid. Because they're on the road all day, the company installed GPS software called Xora StreetSmart on their cell phones in order to keep track of where they go, when they stop and why. So when Lydia Cooper, a corporate training supervisor there, noticed one of her employees was taking an oddly circuitous route to his patients and making frequent stops without explanation, she asked why. He revealed that while working for her, he was also working as a truant officer for a local school district. He was promptly fired.

"I'm not going to pay someone while they're working for someone else," Cooper says.

In the seven years since the Philadelphia-based company began monitoring its 70 field workers, Cooper has seen employees go to shopping malls, doctor appointments and one even took exercises classes three mornings a week. To avoid being tracked, some would intentionally fail to charge their phone. Others would leave it in the car. But as each employee was reprimanded or fired, and new people who understood the firm's tracking policies were hired, the company has doubled its productivity, Cooper says.

"I think everyone we have right now is onboard with the system," she says.

It's not new that companies are using GPS to keep tabs on employees. What's new is that employees, for the most part, aren't complaining about it anymore. When companies first began using the technology during the past decade, there was a backlash with cries of "Big Brother" and invasion of privacy. Workers feared their bosses would continue to monitor them on their free time. But as GPS monitoring has become the rule and not the exception, employees have had no choice but to jump onboard—or risk having no job at all.

From UPS Inc. to the Geese Police in New Jersey—a firm that dispatches trained border collies to get rid of Canada geese—to school districts in Norman, Oklahoma, organizations that have staff or vehicles out on the road all day are increasingly turning to GPS devices to monitor their operations. Technology research firm Aberdeen Group conducted two studies last year into companies with field employees and found that 62 percent of the respondents said they were using GPS to track staff. That number was closer to 30 percent in 2008, the firm said.

Employees have also become less resistant as companies have expanded the way they use GPS data. Early on, the technology was used largely as a tracking tool, and there were punitive ramifications if employees or their vehicles weren't where they were supposed to be. That's why it had a "Big Brother" connotation, says Sumair Dutta, an Aberdeen analyst. But as organizations have put the employee location information to other uses, like making sure drivers are taking the most direct routes to their destinations, or tracking how long a salesman stays on a sales call to see if there's a correlation between "length of call" and "likelihood of sale," employees are seeing the information isn't solely meant to be a threat. In some cases, companies are showing workers how the technology can also be used to their benefit, if, say, a customer claims a technician didn't show up when in fact the GPS system shows otherwise.

"We are seeing less resistance to GPS tracking," Dutta says.

Demographics have also helped. As a new wave of younger, more social-media friendly employees joins the workforce, resistance to GPS has declined, given that these employees tend to broadcast their whereabouts readily anyway. The impact of this demographic change will take a while to filter through, but there definitely will be less resistance from the workforce in the future, analysts say.

"More people are taking locationing for granted on their personal mobile devices, and it's diluted the potential threat of it in the workforce," says Jeanine Sterling, senior industry analyst for mobile and wireless communications at Frost & Sullivan. "We think it's the biggest dynamic that took the heat out of this position over the last few years."

Most of the resistance these days is in pockets: It is strongest in smaller companies and in the construction field, Sterling says. Frost & Sullivan surveyed about 300 mobile and wireless purchase decision-makers last year and found that about 63 percent said they would be buying mobile software applications to track their employees. Only 37 percent—and most of them were small companies—said they would not. And the top reason cited was not privacy or other employee-related concerns but rather that they did not feel they needed it at this time. Just 6 percent of those surveyed cited worker privacy as a purchase barrier, Sterling says.

"Smaller companies tend to be where employers are still concerned about privacy, and employees are still resisting," Sterling says. "These companies are saying, 'We don't want the hassle. We're not going to do this.' We say, this is a generational issue, and it's going to fade away on its own in the next few years."

For Healthcare Receivable Specialists, it has taken some finessing to get workers accustomed to being tracked. Some employees were told they could work things like doctors' appointments into their schedule, without having to clock out, so long as they tell their supervisor ahead of time. Some were given performance-based bonuses or promotions as long as their productivity went up. Others were allowed to work from home on days they didn't have to be out on the road.

"When you have a good field rep, it's a person who works well without supervision. And they want to feel like they can be trusted. So we had to work things out with a lot of those people," Cooper says.

Caren Chesler is a writer based in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.