HONG KONG — A technology company in eastern China gave “smart” cushions to its employees for their office chairs, ostensibly to monitor their health as part of a product study. The cushions were supposed to note bad posture as a sign of possible fatigue, measure heart rates and tally minutes spent at work stations.
But when the company’s human resources manager began inquiring about employees’ long breaks and early departures from work, it soon became clear that the cushions were also recording the last thing employees wanted their bosses to know: when they were absent from their desks, potentially spelling trouble for workers.
The episode at Health Boost IoT Technology Company, which designed the cushion, has raised questions about privacy and transparency in the workplace, and set off an online debate about the boundaries of corporate surveillance. While government surveillance is pervasive in the country, residents also worry about unwanted monitoring from their employers.
The company, based in the city of Hangzhou, said in a statement that it had issued a warning to the human resources manager for “disseminating” participant data without permission. But the company’s chief executive, Zhang Biyong, defended the manager’s right to scrutinize the whereabouts of its employees.
“If the employees aren’t at their seats,” he said in an interview on Monday, “then we can’t collect the data.”
An employee anonymously revealed the existence of the special cushions in a widely circulated post she wrote online late last year on 19lou, a lifestyle forum. Local news outlets picked up the tale this month. The woman recalled her alarm when a company manager asked about half-hour breaks she had taken from her work station, and she said she had been threatened with reductions to her annual bonus for supposedly slacking off.
“What could it mean?” she wrote in a panic. “It means that all the evidence is in the cushion, and my boss knows it!” She added: “Going to work is like being in jail: that feeling of being constantly watched. Who is really working productively every minute and second at the office, anyway?”
Another colleague, the woman said, was asked why she had left work 10 minutes early every day. Others were asked similar questions. She did not immediately respond to questions sent to her account on the forum. While the employee did not name the company, Health Boost released a statement on Dec. 23 denying that it was surveilling its staff members from the seats of their office chairs.
The company, designs what it calls “unobtrusive” health devices, like the SlaapLekker (“sleep well” in Dutch), a device fitted to mattresses to measure heart health. Mr. Zhang also co-authored research papers on a chair “sensory mat” that could monitor posture, heart rate and “unobtrusive early stress detection” technology for “future smart offices.”
In a phone interview on Monday, he said the contentious cushions were meant to reduce workplace fatigue and prevent aches and pains caused by long hours at the office. Data collected from employees through sensors on the cushions, he said, were used to monitor their health and improve the product technology, not to evaluate their work performance. The data could nudge a worker not to slouch through a table of measurements displayed on an employee’s laptop and a smartphone app.
Mr. Zhang said that of his company’s 20 or so employees, the seven who used the cushions had all signed consent forms to participate in the study designed by a master’s student at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. A copy of a blank consent form reviewed by The Times showed that names and identifiable information were to be separated from the data to ensure confidentiality. It noted that “some people can access all your data at the research location” to ensure that the study was being conducted “in a good and reliable manner.”
It was unclear whether all employees had known that in addition to the researchers the unidentified human resources manager would also have access to their information.
Chinese tech companies are known for their punishing work hours, described as “996” — in which employees toil from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week — or its close sibling, 11116 — from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week. But young employees have been resisted the low pay and limited mobility by taking long lunch breaks and making frequent toilet visits in a philosophy called “touching fish,” an idiom for “seizing the moment.”
Mr. Zhang said it was the responsibility of human resources to keep an eye on the health of the staff, saying, “We now have a tool that can help HR maintain the health of workers.”
Matthijs Hoekstra, who designed the Health Boost study, said that he had used the cushion technology to research “office vitality and health” with the consent of participants.
“We collaborate at the technology level, and to improve the technology, we also collaborate in collecting example data voluntarily for scientific experiments in laboratories,” Mr. Hoekstra wrote in an email on Monday.
His supervisor, Jun Hu also said in an email, referring to the company by its Chinese name, “Outside Hebo we have no access to the raw data, but only codified, anonymized and processed information for research.”
The researchers declined to comment on the level of access that Health Boost’s human resources manager had to employees’ data.
Asked whether he would reconsider elements of the study following the outcry online, Mr. Zhang, said he had done nothing wrong. “We’ve consulted many lawyers; we have the consent forms of the participants,” he said.
Mr. Zhang did note, however, that the smart cushions were better for employees than existing technology used by companies to track work hours, such as the fingerprint time clock.
Tha technology, he noted, “doesn’t even have health features.”
Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong, and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei.
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