Technology & Science
How new data-collection technology might change office culture
Employers experimenting with personal data collecting to boost performance
Imagine a tiny microphone embedded in the ID badge dangling from the lanyard around your neck.
The mic is gauging the tone of your voice and how frequently you are contributing in meetings. Hidden accelerometers measure your body language and track how often you push away from your desk.
At the end of each day, the badge will have collected roughly four gigabytes worth of data about your office behaviour.
Think this is far-fetched? Well, last winter employees at the consulting firm Deloitte in St. John's used these very badges, which are being touted as the next frontier in office innovation.
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The Deloitte team was switching from a traditional cubicle farm to an open-concept space, and the badges were used to measure how well employees were performing in the new milieu.
Participation in the pilot project was optional and those who opted in were given contracts that made them owners of their own data.
The information from the badges, which were created by the Boston-based company Humanyze, was gathered anonymously, and workers were given personalized dashboards that benchmarked their performance against that of the group.
"The minute that you get the report that you're not speaking enough and that you don't show leadership, immediately, the next day, you change your behaviour," says Silvia Gonzalez-Zamora, an analytics leader at Deloitte, who steered the Newfoundland pilot.
"It's powerful to see how people want to display better behaviours or the behaviours that you're moving them towards."
'What do happiest people do?'
The Humanyze badges are just one of many data-driven tools that some advanced workplaces are testing in a bid to improve efficiency and communication.
The tools range from complex email scanning programs to simple fitness trackers, such as Fitbits, that measure sleep patterns and movement.
Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, says he envisions the sensor-equipped badges will become ubiquitous. He and his colleagues developed the badges and analytical models while working on their PhDs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Waber notes that the badges do not record conversations or things like how many times an employee uses the washroom.
Instead, they're intended to help balance group discussions, create a work environment with positive interactions and show how each employee fits into the bigger picture using irrefutable data.
"To be able to show you — here's what the people who get promoted do … here's what the top performers do, here's what the happiest people do — and show that change over time and how your behaviour is changing over time" is very powerful, Waber said.
"If the company moves your desk or they changed how you get paid, what actual impact does that have?"
Human Big Data
For the Deloitte team in St. John's, Humanyze found that workers liked their new light-filled cubicles so much they were less likely to get up and take breaks.
In a similar case study for the Bank of America, the team tracked employees at a call centre for three months.
Humanyze suggested that if employees took breaks at the same time, productivity would improve.
The change was introduced and productivity increased by as much as 20 per cent while stress levels dipped by 19 per cent, according to its measurements.
We help companies understand what their top teams and top people are doing that's different from everyone else. - Ryan Fuller, Volometrix
The giant Japanese conglomerate Hitachi has also developed what it calls Human Big Data, a wearable device that is outfitted with sensors and collects data 50 times per second.
Hitachi says the data gathered from the device is used to gauge the happiness of the group.
Meanwhile, Seattle-based Volometrix is hoping to help large companies bump up their efficiency rates by offering a service that scrapes the address and subject fields of email and calendar appointments from employees, and then aggregates the data to chart how workers are spending their time and with whom.
Volometrix counts Boeing, Facebook, Qualcomm and Seagate among its clients.
"We help companies understand what their top teams and top people are doing that's different from everyone else," says co-founder and CEO Ryan Fuller.
"It might be that top salespeople are spending two more hours a week with customers and building five more relationships within each customer.
"You can get to a very granular view of what's different about the places in your organization that are working really well and the places that are working less well."
'You can become your own mini-NSA'
The obvious fear for many employees is that data collected would not be anonymous and, instead, could be used for hiring, firing and promotion considerations.
The growing market for these types of tools is sure to spawn imitators who might not uphold the same privacy safeguards.
Privacy advocates shuddered when a software developer recently boasted that it would be possible for employers to peek into the emails and messages sent through Microsoft's Lync messaging system (now known as Skype for Business).
"You can become your own mini-NSA," David Tucker, CEO of Australian-based Event Zero, told Network World.
Managers could see which employees are dating and which ones are seeking out their next job. "Just make sure it doesn't end up on WikiLeaks," he advised.
Generally, though, most companies are using these tools for positive ends, says Peter Bell, a management science professor at Western University's Ivey business school.
In fact, he says, most managers are using them to help workers who have steered off course.
"In Canada, hiring and firing people is a nightmare," Bell says. "It's much better to identify issues on the job and try to train people and mentor them to be more productive."
For companies, being open about how employee data is being collected and for what purpose is crucial, says Ann Cavoukian, executive director of Ryerson's Privacy and Big Data Institute in Toronto.
Cavoukian, who was Ontario's information and privacy commissioner from 1997 to 2014, notes however that businesses have every right to monitor their employees' performance.
"You're there to work, you're being paid," she said, "And if it is made very clear to you that we monitor your emails ... then the employee has the choice whether they want to work in a workplace like that.
"I think it is unreasonable to think that workplaces and employers are not going to use every means available to increase efficiency and productivity."
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