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Employers Now Using Sensors To Track Your Productivity

We knew ubiquitous computing was coming—we just didn’t know it was going to arrive in the office first.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal today, employees are more productive when they interact face-to-face with their coworkers. Productivity is also affected by things as mundane as the location of coffee stations and the size of lunch tables (smaller is better).

Far more remarkable than these behavioral insights, though, is how they were achieved: By asking employees to strap on sensors that record every movement, meeting, and conversation that happens during the day. It’s a growing trend among companies like Bank of America and Steelcase, hoping to leverage the power of Big Data to make their offices leaner and more productive.

One anecdote describes how a pharmaceutical company called Cubist asked a group of employees to don iPhone-sized sensors, which recorded things like how often they stood up, their conversational patterns, and where they took breaks. Employees, it should be noted, were allowed to opt-out (though the true cost of doing so was not clear). The data analysis, provided by Sociometric Solutions, ultimately led to changes both in the design of the office and the structure of the workday. WSJ explains:

Cubist discovered a correlation between higher productivity and face-to-face interactions. It found that social activity dropped off significantly during lunch time, as many employees retreated to their desks to check emails, rather than chatting with one another.

In response, the company decided to make its once-dingy cafeteria more inviting, improving the lighting and offering better food, to encourage workers to lunch together, instead of at their desks.

Cubist also scaled back to a lone coffee station and water cooler for the sales and marketing group, forcing employees to huddle and mix. It set a 3 p.m. daily coffee break, both to prop up sagging energy levels and to boost social interactions.

In such studies, Sociometric Solutions and its clients say, workers typically get a report on their group’s overall interactions, with no names attached, though individuals get to see their own data.

Unsurprisingly, the story is riling up privacy watchdogs and garnering comparisons to Brave New World. But at the same time, many of us are willingly strapping on sensors that record any number of other activities, from sleeping to golf. Could the workplace have been far behind?

Furthermore, the ongoing debate over the merits of telecommuting—spurred by Marissa Mayer’s decision to end Yahoo!’s work-from-home policy earlier this month—could absolutely benefit from some cold, hard data collection. Companies like Sociometric could provide it. Assuming employees don’t rise up in spontaneous mutiny.

The full story is here.

[Image: Circles via Shutterstock]