The Coming Age of Employee-Monitoring Tech

The Coming Age of Employee-Monitoring Tech

The Boston-based employee analytics company Humanyze has been using “sociometric badges”—wearable “people analytics” technology that tracks workers’ movements, body language, tone of voice, and other indicators—to make surprising discoveries about the workplace since its founding a few years ago. They found, for example, that teams who eat lunch in large groups tend to be more productive, and a profile at Co.Exist late last year laid out some other interesting findings:

Its favorite example comes from one of Bank of America’s call centers, which suffered form the usual problems of burnout and higher turnover. A stint wearing badges revealed that the most productive workers frequently shared tips and frustrations with their colleagues. So the company recommended ditching individually staggered breaks in favor of 15 minutes of shared downtime. This supposedly less efficient arrangement—no one is manning the phones—led to shorter calls and lower stress while increasing productivity by more than 10%. “If you can use data to figure out things that are pinpoint small and easy to implement,” says [CEO and co-founder Ben] Waber, “they can have order of magnitude effects.”

Two of his favorite tools are cafeteria tables and coffee machines. In one case, simply increasing the size of table from four people to 12 and instituting company-wide lunch hours led to individual productivity increases as high as 25%, thanks to better communication within teams and larger social networks. In another engagement, Humanyze helped Cubist Pharmaceuticals (since acquired by Merck) increase sales by 20 percent, or $200 million. Badge data revealed when Cubist’s sales force increased their interactions with coworkers on other teams by 10%, their sales also grew by 10%. To increase mingling among teams, the company replaced many small coffee stations with several larger ones, imperceptibly seeding the encounters it hoped to see.

Humanyze has already sold thousands of these badges, which Weber says are “like a Fitbit for your career,” to large companies, and it’s looking to expand its reach. Next month, the company is releasing a new badge that’s just slightly larger than a credit card, Thomas Heath reports at the Washington Post:

Each has two microphones doing real-time voice analysis, and each comes with sensors that follow where you are in the office, with motion detectors to record how much you move. The beacons tracking your movements are omitted from bathroom locations, to give you some privacy.

“Within three or four years, every single ID badge is going to have these sensors,” predicted [Waber]. “We are only scratching the surface right now.”

Those concerned about their privacy might be alarmed by the arrival of such badges. But Humanyze says it doesn’t record the content of what people say, just how they say it. And the boss doesn’t get to look at individuals’ personal data. It is also up to the employee to decide whether they want to participate. “Those are things we hammer home,” Waber said. “If you don’t give people choice, if you don’t aggregate instead of showing individual data, any benefit would be dwarfed by the negative reaction people will have of you coming in with this very sophisticated sensor.”

Participating employees can access their own data — thus the Fitbit analogy — but the company does not pass along along identifiable data to the employer, instead giving them an aggregated, anonymized set of analytics. But while Humanyze is mainly concerned with measuring productivity and mapping communications, such devices can also capture data that provide insight into employee’s emotional states. In a Bloomberg story, Hugh Son explores how researchers and companies are investigating this type of emotional monitoring in the financial sector:

The most promising application, and the one with the most profound privacy issues, would be for keeping tabs on employees, [Andrew Lo, an MIT finance professor,] says. Risk managers could use it to spot problems brewing on a specific desk, such as unauthorized trading, before too much damage is done. “Imagine if all your traders were required to wear wristwatches that monitor their physiology, and you had a dashboard that tells you in real time who is freaking out,” Lo says. “The technology exists, as does the motivation—one bad trade can cost $100 million—but you’re talking about a significant privacy intrusion.” …

Another startup, Behavox, uses machine-learning programs to scan employee communications and trading records. Emotional analysis of telephone conversations is a part of a worker’s overall behavioral picture, according to founder Erkin Adylov, a former Goldman Sachs research analyst. When a worker deviates from established patterns—shouting at someone he’s trading with when previous conversations were calm—it could be a sign further scrutiny is warranted. “Emotion recognition and mapping in phone calls is increasingly something that banks really want from us,” says Adylov, whose company is based in London. “All the things you do as a human are driven by emotions.”

There are even ways to monitor an employee’s happiness. Mark Mann at Motherboard checks out the brave new world of “social physics” and the companies trying to use it to reduce employees’ likelihood of quitting:

Ron Davis is CEO of Tenacity, a “retention-as-a-service” company based in Seattle that proposes to use “social physics” to make people actually squeeze some enjoyment out of their call center jobs—and ideally not to quit so much. The techniques for making people happier are well established, he pointed out: We know that mindfulness and deep breathing, physical exercise, and connecting with peers all contribute to a sense of well-being. “The problem is nobody does that stuff,” he said. Through the emerging field of “social physics,” Tenacity subtly manipulates workers to build more well-being into their days. …

One motivation hack derived from social physics is rewarding others—not you—for your successes, Davis told me. Under Tenacity, employees choose two buddies to be their accountability partners. Instead of rewarding workers directly for desired behaviors, such as performing a meditation exercise or doing some moderate physical activity, the program rewards those partners. “It turns that’s seven times more effective,” Davis explained. What we won’t do to make ourselves happy, we will do to please our friends.

Social physics also suggests that people are more productive when they get to spend unstructured time with each other. Since call centers can be such lonely places, Tenacity offers to foster friendships outside of work. Participants perform “quests” together, such as taking a new employee out for drinks, and snapping a silly selfie.

There’s still a lot to be learned about how employees will respond to these technologies as they become more common, and what long-term impact they will have on engagement and productivity. The effects of surveillance on employee motivation are not well understood, at least yet, and studies that have looked into this question have turned up mixed results. Monitoring can encourage better habits, but could also crowd out intrinsic motivation and make employees view those habits as obligations. Then there’s the question of how to roll out monitoring technology with employees who are accustomed to not being tracked: Get that wrong, and your people analytics ambitions may end up dead in the water.