Banks are now monitoring how often top employees sit at their desks—but that’s not the problem

Big Brother is watching your desk.
Big Brother is watching your desk.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Coombs
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Barclays, a leading British bank, has decided to trim costs by tracking how often employees are at their desks.

The bank has installed monitors under desks to keep tabs of comings and goings, according to Bloomberg. The idea is to have a better idea of how much office space the bank needs, in an effort to save on real estate costs. The new, under-desk devices at Barclays record heat and motion, and managers can monitor the activity on a dashboard to sense usage trends. Lloyds, another UK finance firm, does something similar.

The devices are not intended to monitor their productivity or the work they’re doing, Barclays told Bloomberg. But perhaps they should.

Over the last decade, the banking industry in the UK has been beset by a range of scandals, many of them due to the actions of its employees.

The self-inflicted wounds include the massive manipulation of lending rates, known as the LIBOR scandal, which cost the industry $9 billion in fines; the so-called London Whale trader, who cost JP Morgan Chase $6.2 billion; and the mis-selling of insurance to retail banking customers, which has cost the industry a staggering $52 billion. Those scandals—and the broader financial crisis—have triggered greater scrutiny of banks in the UK and around the world, and regulators are now parked in bank offices to keep an eye on them.

Big employers are always looking for ways to trim expenses—Barclays now has systems in place to track its employees interactions with customers to gauge their profitability (last year they jettisoned thousands of low volume trading clients). And in the age of remote work and executives who are constantly traveling, assigning fixed desks to everyone may no longer make sense. Many Deloitte employees, for example, no longer have their own offices, but reserve desks and offices as need, which the firm calls “hoteling.”

Studying how workers use their physical space is not a bad way to save money. But if the finance industry is really interested in reducing unnecessary costs, they might also figure out how to stop activities that led to $321 billion in fines.