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A US company has microchipped its employees – we should welcome this as progress and get involved

Ab Banerjee
The microchip is the size of a grain of rice, and functions as a swipe card: to open doors, operate printers or buy smoothies: EPA

A company in Wisconsin just made the news for microchipping its employees. As per USA Today, 40 employees at the local firm Three Square Market, which makes cafeteria kiosks intended to replace traditional vending machines, “got tiny rice-sized microchips embedded in their hands … for convenience, a way for them to bypass using company badges and corporate log-ons to computers,” so that “now they can just have their hands read by a reader”.

In the future, these employees will be able to receive payments from contactless cards on their hands. It’s handy. It’s efficient. Is it terrifying?

The response was predictably hysterical, with countless scare stories and people screaming: “The end is nigh.”

Others restrained themselves but worried about the power dynamic. “Is it really voluntary when your employer is asking you if you would like to be microchipped?” asked Noelle Chesley, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

But to me this seems like a lot of puff about nothing. We need to remember that this is only a microchip. Right now, if you carry a phone around with you 24/7, you already have a microchip – in fact, many more than one – in your pocket permanently.

This scaremongering matters because microchipping presents us with lots of opportunities, and it might very well be the future of work.

The Wisconsin firm’s microchip is restricted in functionality: taking payments, opening doors, and logging on to computers. My vision is much bigger.

Imagine you and all your work colleagues are chipped. This microchip holds lots of useful data not only about your work, but about you too. It has a complete archive of all the feedback that you’ve ever received as an employee, metrics on your performance, and a record of your behavioural traits, such as how you work best.

Scary? Nope. This data is already being collected by many companies under the guise of 360-degree real-time feedback.

JPMorgan, for example, recently introduced this software. It’s useful because it gives managers a rich bird’s-eye-view of how their teams and organisation is performing. It’s useful for employees because it gives them immediate actionable feedback on how they can improve.

At the moment this data is stored on companies’ tech systems. But why couldn’t it be stored locally on employee microchips? It would be more accessible, and might even give employees better ownership over the data.

But how is this helpful? Imagine you walk into the room and your smartphone connects to all your colleagues’ microchips. On the screen you immediately see who everyone is, what their roles are, their behavioural traits, communication styles, strengths and weaknesses.

This would give you incredible instant insight. Think how useful this could be in meetings. You would know the right person to direct your updates too, and because you know how they prefer to interact, and you could do it in a way that suited their communication style too.

Perhaps in the future it might even be possible to see this data “on” your colleagues directly in augmented reality through optical head-mounted displays (think Google Glass).

This isn’t just a “nice to have” either. It would make an immense difference to productivity. According to research by Salesforce, 86 per cent of employees and executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures. Microchips could transform communication.

Of course, I’m not blind to the dangers. We can’t allow microchips to track or monitor employees without their explicit consent. And in my view it should always remain absolutely voluntary. But rather than scaremongering, we should make it our jobs to try to solve as many of these problems as possible. Realise the opportunities while mitigating the risks.

There is an obvious way to do that: make sure the software the chips are paired up with have strong privacy protections. For example, employees should be able to log into their microchip and control whether the data it holds is public or private. This could even be monitored and regulated by the Government.

There is always fear when new technology comes to market. Microchipping is no different. But I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and we should welcome the future with open arms – microchipped, of course.

Ab Banerjee is CEO of ViewsHub, the team-to-team workplace feedback and ratings platform