HONG KONG – A technology company in east China designed “intelligent” cushions and gave them to employees for their office chairs as part of a product study. The pillows should monitor their health, detect poor posture as a sign of possible fatigue, measure heart rate, and keep track of minutes at work.

When the company’s HR manager inquired about long breaks and premature drop-outs by employees, it quickly became clear that the pillows also recorded the last thing employees wanted to know from their supervisors: if they weren’t at their desks, spelling could be trouble for them Workers.

The episode at Health Boost IoT Technology Company raised questions about privacy and transparency in the workplace and sparked an online debate about the limits of corporate surveillance. While government surveillance is widespread in the country, residents also worry about unwanted surveillance by their employers.

The Hangzhou-based company said in a statement that it had warned the human resources manager not to “leak” participant data without permission. However, the company’s executive director, Zhang Biyong, defended the manager’s right to verify the whereabouts of his employees.

“If the employees are not in their seats,” he said in an interview on Monday, “then we cannot collect the data.”

A staff member anonymously revealed the existence of the special pillow in a widespread post she wrote online on 19lou, a lifestyle forum, late last year. Local news outlets picked up the story this month. The woman remembered her alarm when a company executive asked about half-hour breaks she had taken from work and said she was threatened with a reduction in her annual bonus for allegedly waning.

“What could it mean?” she wrote in panic. “It means all the evidence is in the pillow and my boss knows it!” She added, “Going to work is like being in jail: the feeling of being watched all the time. Who is actually working productively every minute and second in the office? “

Another colleague, the woman said, was asked why she left work 10 minutes early every day. Others were asked similar questions. She didn’t immediately respond to questions sent to her forum account. Though the employee did not name the company, Health Boost released a statement on Dec. 23 denying monitoring its employees from the seats of their office chairs.

The company designs so-called “low-profile” health devices like that SlaapLekker (“Sleep well” in Dutch), a device attached to mattresses to measure heart health. Mr. Zhang also co-authored research on a “Sensory mat” chair that could monitor posture, heart rate and “inconspicuous early detection of stress “ Technology for “future smart offices”.

In a phone interview on Monday, he said the controversial pillows were intended to reduce workplace fatigue and prevent pain from long office hours. Data collected from employees through sensors on the pillows was used to monitor their health and improve product technology, not to evaluate their job performance. The data could cause an employee not to scroll through a table of measurements displayed on an employee’s laptop and smartphone app.

Mr. Zhang said that of the roughly 20 employees at his company, the seven who used the pillows had all signed informed consent forms to take part in the study, which was designed by a master’s student at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. A copy of a blank consent form checked by The Times indicated that names and identifiable information should be separated from data for reasons of confidentiality. It was suggested that “some people at the research site have access to all of your data” to ensure that the study was conducted in a “good and reliable manner”.

It was unclear whether all employees had known that in addition to the researchers, the unidentified HR manager would also have access to their information.

Chinese technology companies are known for their punishing working hours, described as “996”- in which the employees work six days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. – or their close siblings 11116 – six days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. However, young workers have resisted the low wages and restricted mobility by taking long lunch breaks and frequent toilet visits.Touch fish, “A phrase for” seizing the moment “.

Mr. Zhang said it is the responsibility of human resources to keep an eye on the health of employees. He said, “We now have a tool that can help human resources keep workers healthy.”

Matthijs Hoekstra, who designed the Health Boost study, said he used the upholstery technology to research the “vitality and health of the office” with the consent of the participants.

“We work together on a technological level. In order to improve the technology, we voluntarily collect sample data for scientific experiments in laboratories, ”Hoekstra wrote in an email on Monday.

His supervisor, Jun Hu, said in an email referring to the company with the Chinese name: “Outside of Hebo we have no access to the raw data, only codified, anonymized and processed information for research purposes.”

The researchers declined to comment on the level of access the Health Boost HR manager had to employees’ data.

When asked if he would reconsider elements of the study after the online outcry, Mr. Zhang said he had done nothing wrong. “We consulted a lot of lawyers. We have the consent forms from the participants, ”he said.

However, Mr. Zhang noted that the smart pillows were better for employees than the existing technology that companies use to keep track of work hours, such as the fingerprint timer.

This technology “doesn’t even have health characteristics”.

Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei.

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