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Unblinking eyes track employees, seeing both good and bad

First Published Jun 21 2014 11:28AM      Last Updated Jun 21 2014 11:33 am

A digital Big Brother is coming to work, for better or worse.

Advanced technological tools are beginning to make it possible to measure and monitor employees as never before, with the promise of fundamentally changing how we work — along with raising concerns about privacy and the specter of unchecked surveillance in the workplace.

Through these new means, companies have found, for example, that workers are more productive if they have more social interaction. So a bank’s call center introduced a shared 15-minute coffee break, and a pharmaceutical company replaced coffee makers used by a few marketing workers with a larger cafe area. The result? Increased sales and less turnover.



Yet the prospect of fine-grained, digital monitoring of workers’ behavior worries privacy advocates. Companies, they say, have few legal obligations other than informing employees. "Whether this kind of monitoring is effective or not, it’s a concern," said Lee Tien, a senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

When Jim Sullivan began working as a waiter at a Dallas restaurant a few years ago, he was being watched — not by the prying eyes of a human boss, but by intelligent software.

The digital sentinel, he was told, tracked every waiter, every ticket, and every dish and drink, looking for patterns that might suggest employee theft. But that torrent of detailed information, parsed another way, cast a computer-generated spotlight on the most productive workers.

Sullivan’s data shone brightly. And when his employer opened a fourth restaurant in the Dallas area in 2012, Sullivan was named the manager — a winner in the increasingly quantified world of work.

Still, even people involved in the workplace analytics business say rules governing privacy are needed, if the emerging industry is to flourish.

Ben Waber is chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a startup firm that grew out of his doctoral research at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, which conducts research in the new technologies. Sociometric Solutions advises companies using sensor-rich ID badges worn by employees. These sociometric badges, equipped with two microphones, a location sensor and an accelerometer, monitor the communications behavior of individuals — tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long.

By now, Sociometric Solutions is working with 20 companies in the banking, technology, pharmaceutical and health care industries, involving thousands of employees. The workers must opt in to have their data collected. Waber’s company signs a contract with each employee guaranteeing that no individual data is given to the employer (only aggregate statistics), and that no conversations are recorded.

"Privacy policy," Waber said, "is going to have to deal with the workplace and not just the consumer issues."

The payoff for well-designed workplace monitoring, Waber said, can be significant. The underlying theme of human dynamics research is that people are social learners, so arranging work to increase productive face-to-face communication yields measurable benefits.

For example, the company studied workers in Bank of America call centers and observed that those in tight-knit communications groups were more productive and less likely to quit. To increase social communication, the shared 15-minute coffee break was introduced to the daily routine. Afterward, call-handling productivity increased more than 10 percent, and turnover declined nearly 70 percent, Waber said.

Waber’s company also provided the data-guided insight to help the pharmaceutical company increase sales with its new cafe area. At a tech company, his company found, workers who sat at larger tables in the cafeteria, thus communicating more, were more productive than workers who sat at smaller tables.

Bryan Koop, a commercial office developer who has worked with Sociometric Solutions, points to the potential for more scientifically designed work environments. There are current fashions in office design, he said, that are assumed to increase worker productivity, like stationing workers at communal bench-style tables and constructing work cubes with lower dividers.

"We don’t know if those tactics work," Koop said. "What we’re starting to see is the ability to quantitatively measure things instead of just going by intuition."

Skeptics warn of a digital-age rerun of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s "scientific management" from a century ago, whose excesses were satirized in Charlie Chaplin’s "Modern Times." Taylor’s instrument of measurement was the stopwatch, used to time and monitor a worker’s every movement. His time-and-motion studies determined the best way to do work.

Initially, Taylorism was hailed as a progressive force that would free workers from the whim of autocratic bosses and benefit all. "This is the way workplace analytics is being presented now," said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

 

 

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