Employees Tracked With 'Productivity' Sensors

productivity trackingBy Vivian Giang

The idea of having employees walk around with electronic sensors to track their every move is unsettling. There are privacy and legal issues, and who wants to feel like they are just a cog in a system? But data companies say that the resulting reams of information will improve life for companies and employees.

Sociometric Solutions has created tracking devices for Bank of America, Steelcase and Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc., and is in talks with General Motors. It was started by a team of Ph.D students from MIT who decided to study the chemistry behind what makes certain workspaces like Google great at building teams. They came up with sensors placed in employee identification badges that gather real-time information to help companies measure productivity. The sensors identify a person's tone of voice, movement and even their posture when communicating with others.

"Google really cares about creating a community because the social conversations -- the ones at the water cooler, coffee maker -- those are the ones that have the biggest impact," says Ben Waber, president of Sociometrics and one of the company's founders. "In the U.S., there's this notion that your most productive time is when you're sitting at your desk staring at the computer," and that's not necessarily true.

The sensors are intended to measure when and how employees are truly productive. While individual information is collected, it's anonymized to provide metadata and hedge against privacy concerns. The information is then used to suggest how employees, and the company as a whole, can work more efficiently.

"The legality behind this," says Arena, "that's the biggest unanswered question. Privacy online is sort of open and privacy issues are going to be the stumbling block for a long time. And that's a big, big question."

More: Workers Don't Share In Companies' Productivity Gains

The Tracking Sensors
Waber's team places electronic sensors in employees' badges, which includes a Bluetooth, a microphone (it doesn't record what people say, but rather the tone of their voice, speaking speed and volume), a motion sensor to measure movement, and an infrared beam.

The idea is that these analytic tools can help determine the nature of the conversations people are having. For example, the microphone can measure speaking tone, and the higher someone's tone or the faster they speak can indicate how excited or passionate they are at any given time.

The infrared can also sense if another badge is in sight, which gives researchers an idea of how people stand when speaking to others. For example, people who usually have others facing them when speaking are more dominant personalities. On the other hand, when two people are engaged in an interesting conversation, they will likely mirror one another, which signals more equality.

"We've been able to foretell, for example, which teams will win a business plan contest, solely on the basis of data collected from team members wearing badges at a cocktail reception," Alex Pentland, a professor at MIT and also an advisor to Waber's group, wrote for the Harvard Business Review.

Since privacy is the biggest concern over the devices, after behavioral/productivity reports are sent to individuals, their identities are removed from the system so the names associated with individual sensors are never revealed to employers.

More: 7 Ways To Stop Procrastinating At Work And Get More Done

The Testing Grounds
Bank of America got on board with the sensors a few years ago when it wanted to study how group dynamics impacted performance. It tested them out on 90 call center employees. Arena says that the company discovered how important it was to allow employees to take breaks together. During that time, employees would often troubleshoot their workplace problems. While sensors didn't monitor conversation, they did report "a cohesiveness was shared between the co-workers," says Arena, and the company eventually experienced a 10 percent improvement in productivity by making some workplace culture changes after the study.

Although Bank of America tested its call center employees, Arena said he thinks the data "has bigger ramifications in professional jobs than anywhere else," because you will inevitably be able to "understand how one person steps into the room and influences others."

"It has greater ramifications in leadership than hourly workers, but it's in the early stages." Arena is now the head of global talent at General Motors, and told us the company is considering "doing very similar things."

Steelcase, which makes office furniture, works with Sociometric to develop sensory products for its own merchandise. For example, its new chair, Gesture, is "designed to support our interactions with today's technologies" and was "inspired by the movement of the human body." The new chair can actually tell employers how it's being used by employees, which will give employers a better idea of what size tables and chairs to buy in order to promote better communication and, inevitably, a more productive team.

"What we hoped to learn was how things influence interactions and how spaces affect those interactions," Dave Lathrop, director of workspace futures and strategy at the company, told us.

Lathrop says most of us don't know how we interact with others. For example, if you have a dominating personality, you could be "forcing people to shut down" and make them distrust you without even knowing it.

"Yahoo and Best Buy are asking people to come back to the office, which does suggest that there's a general belief that when people get physically together, it's valuable," he says. "We're at this magical moment where we can do things that we couldn't do before ... having the analytics that we do. ... As a researcher, I'm incredibly hopeful that this will give us good data on the quality of interactions between people."

But at the end of the day, employees need to feel comfortable with the idea of being tracked, even if it's anonymously -- and that may take a while.

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48 Comments

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denigma58

Let's see if they can track how fast I wipe my bum with it.

May 02 2013 at 11:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cmdrmom2

Coming next: Pre-cogs, Pre-crime arrests and punishment for pre-thoughts.

May 02 2013 at 6:01 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cmdrmom2's comment
denigma58

Nailed it!

May 02 2013 at 11:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alicia Metz

This is foul,its just outraguose how some people go out of there way just to gain control of others or to doninate things.No one should be able to have this ability or power.

March 29 2013 at 2:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bert Walker

Being monitored on the jobsite kind of sucks, but it happens for a reason. Why? Because some people don't move any faster than you prod em. Downside: Everyone else pays for UberSlacker, by also being constantly observed and clocked and watched. It's what Henry Ford used to do, with his eyeballs and his stopwatch, only now there's computers and video cameras.

It's also anti-theft. Loss control, internal security, preventing the people who work the store, from ripping it off. Yes, it happens. Happy viewing!

March 28 2013 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
daxcess2

This is way beyond the scope of productivity tracking. This is where it starts. When will the employees know that the badge has changed to a listening device. I may need a job but I'd never work in a place that did this.

March 21 2013 at 8:56 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
jag32401

I am currently going to school to become a Registered Nurse. Often I see nurses with tracking tags so the nurse can be located. You can see what room the nurse is in. I am not sure about how often one uses the bathroom but we have to wash our hands each time we enter and leave a patient's room. I am not justifying the practice, but it makes sense for the occupation in which I plan to work.

March 21 2013 at 6:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yastarbright

That is going too darn far!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

March 21 2013 at 2:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Velocity105

Can anyone believe this? Tracking your tone of voice, # of trips to the bathroom, your posture.....it's BEYOND belief what companies are trying to get away with. This is very akin to RFID technology that I did a paper on in college. People have already had RFIDs implanted for families to monitor their health in emergency situations but this is absolutely disturbing and unreal to say the least. It would be wonderful for example, for CVS employees to walk off their jobs and bring the entire corporation to a standstill. I can't believe what I'm reading and there are educated idiots at MIT that actually support this..... VERY SCARY.

March 21 2013 at 2:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
msmcompel

Recording every conversation is beyond over the top in surveillance. I know that workers should not expect privacy on a business owned email server, and a company has a right to know where employees are during business hours, but....recording conversations???REALLY?????

March 20 2013 at 11:50 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
SweetfeetBaby

What a bunch of entitled crybabies. Bosses have always tracked their employes while they are on paid time. I can't blame them 'cause when they don't, slackers screw 'em over. If you're better than average at your job, it's a good thing for the boss to know. If you're not, well... I see why you're fearful.
No you do NOT have a right to complete privacy at work. Even at home it's subject to the ruling of a judge.
Get over the fact that employers have some rights of their own.

March 20 2013 at 10:19 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to SweetfeetBaby's comment
denigma58

FAIL. I bet you were a hall monitor at school weren'tcha?

May 02 2013 at 11:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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