In 2008, Bank of America became one of the first organizations to test electronic badges that tracked and analyzed employee behavior. The experiment, in which call-center workers agreed to be followed electronically for a month, found that groups of employees who spent time together were more productive.
The findings of such experiments are helping companies reshape workplace practices to aid employees—and the businesses—work better. At the same time, the idea of monitoring employees through badges, mobile phone GPS, computers or other advanced technology does raise privacy questions.
The tracking-badge technology used in the Bank of America tests, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, was spun off in late 2010 into a company called Sociometric Solutions Inc., which analyzes employee social interactions tracked through the devices and recommends changes to employers based on the data collected.
To Track or Not to Track?
“Human social interaction is rapidly becoming more measurable at a large scale, thanks to always-on sensors like cellphones. The next challenge is to use what we learn from this behavioral data to influence or enhance how people work with each other,” Sociometric Solutions Co-founder, President and CEO Ben Waber wrote in a recent post on the company’s blog.
His company uses sensor-packed ID badges “to measure employees’ movements, their tone of voice, where they are in an office and to whom they are talking. We use data that we collect in offices to advise companies on how to change their organizations, often through actual physical changes to the work environment,” noted Waber, who is also author of the book People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us About the Future of Work (FT Press, May 2013).
The badge, about the size of a credit card (but thicker), can be worn around an employee’s neck. While it records voice features such as volume, speed and pitch, the badge doesn’t record the content of conversations, said Sociometric Solutions Co-founder and Chief Scientist Taemie Kim, in an interview with SHRM Online.
The measurements taken from the badges, she said, are oriented to group interactions and performance rather than individual monitoring, even though employee moves are tracked. While some companies want long-term tracking, clients generally sign on for a consulting project that involves four-to-six weeks of data gathering, an intervention based on the results and advice, then a follow-up four- to six-week tracking period to gain an “after” picture, according to Kim.
Groups Perform Better
Based on Sociometric Solutions’ finding that people who ate in larger lunch groups were more productive, Waber wrote, “Google and other technology companies that depend on serendipitous interaction to spur innovation installed larger cafeteria tables.” (Sociometric Solutions has collaborated with Google, but the Internet behemoth is not a client, said Kim.)
A longer version of Waber’s article, published in the MIT Technology Review, discusses “augmented social reality,” in which a company uses data to make changes based on an employee group’s social needs. This could mean positioning a coffee machine between two groups to make sure the right people bump into each other and start having the right conversations, he said.
Implications for Telecommuters
In an era when many workers telecommute at least some of the time—and when Yahoo’s CEO came under fire this year for banning telecommuting—Sociometric Solutions’ research suggests that working together at the same location is better for productivity, at least for projects that require collaboration or group creativity and problem-solving.
Collaboration may be beneficial for bigger sectors of jobs than we think, according to Kim, who said the call-center study and another on copier-repair workers showed that even employees in jobs considered individual in nature “benefit greatly from interaction with their colleagues.”
In addition to the Bank of America case, Waber cites research on a midsize software-development team that found that groups of programmers working remotely were 8 percent less likely than “co-located” groups to communicate about “critical software dependencies.”
And while other researchers’ study of a Chinese travel agency found that people who chose to work at home on a specific day were more productive than those who went to the office, most of the higher productivity was linked to the longer hours that the home-based workers logged, according to Sociometric Solutions executives. While working from home occasionally might be a great idea, the hard data show that it’s best for employees to work together at the same location most of the time, the company says.
Human resources consultant and writer Susan Heathfield of Williamston, Mich., agreed that creativity and productivity are better when employees work together on site.
“We have found that when we put together teams of seven to 12 people and give them an assignment,” they do phenomenally and socialize more than people sitting in cubicles, said Heathfield, owner of both Heathfield Consulting Associates and TechSmith Corp., which employs 250 knowledge workers.
Even those who work well remotely “lose that running-into-each-other-in-the-hallway kind of contact,” she added. She supports people working remotely, “but there’s a time and place for it.”
Michael Arena, a former Bank of America executive, believes that more companies will adopt sensor technology to assess and improve performance. The badges are a more sensitive alternative to a survey, which just provides data for a given time, he said. With the badges, “you get multiple data sets—you get people’s highs and lows, good interactions, bad interactions,” he added.
As for employee privacy, Kim said there are “definitely people who are concerned, but the ratio of people being concerned depends on the industry a lot.” People in technology-oriented companies more comfortable wearing the badges. People can remove the badges and usually forget they’re wearing them, she said.
Heathfield said that employees didn’t agree to tracking when they came to work for an employer, but said it shouldn’t hurt morale if they participate voluntarily.
“With the employees’ permission I don’t think there’s a problem—if the employer has a legitimate purpose for tracking the employees’ time or whatever it is they’re tracking,” she concluded.
Freelance journalist Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires reporter, is a frequent contributor to CNBC.com and Entrepreneur.com. She is based in Philadelphia.