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It’s not big brother. It’s only sensor technology.

April 2, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By George Brown  

Now that Yahoo has all their employees back in the office, Melissa Mayer must be wondering how she can improve their productivity even more. Her challenge in measuring productivity is finding ways to measure not just results, but the effort that goes into producing those results. But, of course, you cannot do time-and-motion studies in an office environment. To get the kind of Big Data you need, you may have to cross the Big Brother line.

That caution has not stopped some companies to try to get that Big Data. A few years ago Bank of America Corporation wanted to study whether face time mattered among its call-center teams. The bank asked about 90 workers to wear badges for a few weeks with tiny sensors to record their movements and the tone of their conversations.

The data showed that the most productive workers belonged to close-knit teams. They spoke frequently with their colleagues. Having established that basic fact, the bank decided to get more employees to mingle; so it began to schedule group breaks versus letting employees take breaks on their own.  According to former Bank of America human-resources executive Michael Arena, productivity rose by at least 10 percent as a result.

The tracking devices were the key—devices like badges with sensors, or sensors placed on office furniture. Data like this would be nearly impossible to gather and evaluate without them. The sensors monitor movements throughout the office, especially those that involve interaction with others. The company then used the information to make tweaks ranging from the timing of coffee breaks to changing the composition of work groups so as to spur collaboration and productivity.

“Surveys measure a point in time—what’s happening right now with my emotions. [Sensors] measure actual behavior in an objective way,” says Mr. Arena.

Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. also conducted a sensor study involving 30 sales and marketing employees to learn about interactions between team members and various departments. For four weeks, company employees wore small badges that collected data on their motions, whereabouts, voice levels and conversational patterns. The information was merged with email-traffic data, along with the results of weekly surveys in which employees rated how energetic and productive they felt.

Cubist discovered a correlation between higher productivity and face-to-face interactions. It also realized that social activity dropped off significantly during lunch time, when many employees retreated to their desks to check emails.

In response, the company made its once-dingy cafeteria more inviting, improving the lighting and offering better food, to encourage workers to lunch together instead of at their desks. It also eliminated all but one coffee station for its sales and marketing group and scheduled coffee breaks, hoping to boost interactivity and energy levels at the same time.

Dr. Ben Waber, chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, developed the concept of using sensors to gather employee data as part of his doctoral research at MIT.

Safeguards designed to protect individual privacy are built into the sensor studies. For one thing, individual employees must wear the badges voluntarily. In the fifty large- and medium-size corporations have done sensor studies with Dr. Waber’s firm, about 90 percent of all their workers agreed to wear the badges. They must do so for the whole day except for bathroom breaks (where they are optional). Those who choose not to wear them wear identical badges that are not “hot”—i.e., do not transmit data. Further, companies that undertake these studies must sign contracts prohibiting managers from seeing data on individual employees.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, an employee advocacy group, says current sensing technologies do not seem to violate employment laws. “It’s not illegal to track your own employees inside your own building,” he says, adding that the data could be helpful in improving firm and worker performance.

For better or for worse, employee tracking technology is with us. And management’s drive to constantly improve technology has never left us. Using tracking technology to improve productivity is not so heavy-handed as speeding up the assembly line, and it appears to respect the privacy of individuals. But the Law of Unintended Consequences is still out there, as is the line beyond which the organization mutates into Big Brother. The question is where that line is. The best answer is that nobody knows for sure.

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