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]

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22 Comments

  • Brigette Hyacinth

    Welcome back Scientific Management! A proven method to improve job satisfaction, employee morale thereby reducing turnover. (sarcastic tone)

  • Rahul Vt

    Tracking employees is what an employer always does. Employers do business for 'money', employees work for 'money'. So the company making these gadgets are getting into the employers' heads, and making 'money'. 
    This sounds like some automated appraisal system for the future.

  • vuewide

     Oversimplification.

    Inspirational leadership creates a culture of excellence, where alignment with any mission is organic and brilliant, beyond the edicts of control and fear that are prescriptions for failure.

  • Joe S

    The problem with all of this is that it measures the average. If all you
    are after is getting decent results from an average (mediocre)
    workforce then this approach might work. However it has been clearly
    showing time after time any kind of invention or innovation is brought
    about by individuals or VERY small teams of above average individuals.
    If you try this kind of management bullshit with people who are above
    average, they will simply leave.

  • vuewide

     Excellent.

    Innovation is unleashed by imagination and creative thought, which are naturally unbounded, beyond rigid or artificial promulgations.

  • LegendLS95

    So this is nanomanagement...

    ...and micromanagement had such an outstanding reputation until now!

    I sincerely hope I'm not around to see an example of picomanagement surface.

  • Margaret Nahmias

    Wouldn't having the sensors skew the results because the employees know they are being observed_

  • Venky

    True, it is called "Hawthorn Effect".  Anything you tend to measure will show significant improvement immediately. 

  • Goodsq

    This may not be too bad an idea. I see it at it's infancy, but there are already tools which companies use to monitor activity on the web of their workers. This is especially useful for teams which is geographically dispersed and works much better  than people collocated - But don't let Yahoo! know about that. 

  • Joyee C.

    Sensors should only use once or twice per year, to track employees' progress. It would only add pressure on everyone if they have sensors track everyday!  It's commonly known, pressure & stress decrease our productivity.

  • Stephen Hauskins

    It might be just useful to put sensors on the employers.

    I would believe they waste the most time.

  • Stephen Hauskins

    It might be that we really want to have 'data' the android rather than real people.

    If you think the only thing is 'data' you are wrong.

  • Andreas Christofi

    I would never do something like that to my employees. It amplifies mistrust on both sides. A company is doom to fail with no trust. Measures should be taken to increase trust, this is the only way to increase a worker's productivity.

  • Tom

    Wow! And you really think that this is a good idea to implement? Why don't we add toilet cams too so that your boss can watch you relieving yourself?

  • Venky

    Yes, there are companies who measure how many times employees use toilets. They even track the number of minutes spent.  Happens in some factories and BPO companies 

  • vuewide

    Inspiration motivates beyond any artificial panacea.

    It is evoked by unique leadership pathways, beyond the trivial one-size-fits all reductionist methods, or cleverness.

    It is a leadership style shaped by cultivating deep awareness.

  • Adalberto Cervantes Rodriguez

    The anger
    of LATAM people against American Business located there. How is impacting IT
    businesses?

    With the
    death of Chavez, the communist Russian party is looking forware a complete international
    investigation to all the LATAM Presidents with similar medical conditions.  For long time ago, LATAM has been oppressed by
    white Americans related to Oil, mining and other industries and Latinos we promise
    not do the same mistakes that they have done for so many years, there is a long
    way to go if we really want to increase our American market in LATAM.

    China,
    India, Russia are taking seriously their businesses in LATAM than American s
    are losing as the time pass because of different business mistakes,  the good business practices American companies
    have all over the world are miss understand at this time in LATAM, and we look
    for them more imperialist than ever.

    These
    factors are affecting all the American business in the LATAM areas and the most
    affected are Latinos for several years, and it does not allow increasing
    Latinos business in LATAM.  This is no convenient
    for any American company in that area and we wish changes would be made as soon
    as possible to increase the incomes of Latinos in USA that depends mainly in
    the LATAM markets.

    Mexico is persuing
    to lead in commerce in the LATAM countries but what about Latinos in the States?  We have to elaborate a total business
    strategy for LATAM for not committing the same business mistakes against American
    products and services, like the IT.  We
    recommend not to send more for American business as a whole,  white people,  to make business in LATAM instead of that Latinos
    that can speak English and Spanish and be evaluated the effort inside a committee
    in the American corporates because of the gently touch is needed in that market
    area especially at this time.

    For example
    Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil, they are oil producers and  USA needs them to grow, we do not even trust
    in the private oil companies in USA, selling us an expensive gas in our daily
    life, and it is better to deal to these LATAM governments to have it cheaper,
    dealing with them directly. We have to explain better US interest in that area.