Devices on Workers, Furniture Offer Clues for Boosting Productivity
By RACHEL EMMA SILVERMAN
A few years ago when Bank of America Corp. wanted to study whether face time mattered among its call-center teams, the big bank asked about 90 workers to wear badges for a few weeks with tiny sensors to record their movements and the tone of their conversations.
The data showed that the most productive workers belonged to close-knit teams and spoke frequently with their colleagues. So, to get more employees mingling, the bank scheduled workers for group breaks, rather than solo ones.
Productivity rose by at least 10%, says former Bank of America human-resources executive Michael Arena, who helped conduct its study.
As Big Data becomes a fixture of office life, companies are turning to tracking devices to gather real-time information on how teams of employees work and interact. Sensors, worn on lanyards or placed on office furniture, record how often staffers get up from their desks, consult other teams and hold meetings.
Businesses say the data offer otherwise hard-to-glean insights about how workers do their jobs, and are using the information to make changes large and small, ranging from the timing of coffee breaks to how work groups are composed, to spur collaboration and productivity.
"Surveys measure a point in time—what's happening right now with my emotions. [Sensors] measure actual behavior in an objective way," says Mr. Arena.
But there's a fine line between Big Data and Big Brother, at least in the eyes of some employees, who might shudder at the idea of the boss tracking their every move. Sensor proponents, however, argue that smartphones and corporate ID badges already can transmit their owner's location. In many cases, workers can opt out of participating in the sensor studies.
"Gathering big data about human behaviors can be a sensitive topic," says Dave Lathrop, director of workspace futures and strategy at Steelcase Inc ., which has used sensor data with its own employees and is developing sensor products for businesses.
Along with addressing privacy concerns, companies must also be ready to make sense of the data, managers say.
Last year, Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. did a sensor study of 30 sales and marketing employees at its Lexington, Mass., offices to learn about interactions between team members and various departments, says Eric Kimble, a Cubist executive.
For four weeks, company employees wore iPhone-size badges, supplied by Boston startup Sociometric Solutions Inc., that collected data on their motions, whereabouts, voice levels and conversational patterns.
The information was merged with email-traffic data, along with the results of weekly surveys in which employees rated how energetic and productive they felt.
Like Bank of America, 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.
Ben Waber, chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, which he based on his doctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says a handful of managers have wanted to see the data on an individual employee, but that his clients must sign contracts and consent forms prohibiting them from doing so.
Individual data can be revealing, however: Dr. Waber says he can divine from a worker's patterns of movement whether that employee is likely to leave the company, or score a promotion.
Ben Lin, an analyst at Cubist, says he didn't find the badges creepy once his bosses explained how the data would be used. His own report showed he changed his tone and gestures based on his conversation partner. "Subconsciously, you mirror who you are talking to," he says.
Rather than radical changes, sensor studies often show that simple tweaks can improve operations.
Dr. Waber says his work with one client, a tech company, revealed that the size of a lunch table matters. Workers who ate at 12-person tables were more productive and collaborative than those who dined at tables with four seats. Data collected from sensors showed the larger lunch groups had more social interactions with teams across the company.
About 90% of workers at the 50 large and medium-size organizations that have done sensor studies with Dr. Waber's firm agree to don the badges, which are intended to be worn the entire workday. (Bathroom breaks are optional.) Those who opt out can wear a dummy badge, which appears identical but doesn't record or transmit data, he says.
Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, an employee advocacy group, says current sensing technologies don't seem to violate employment laws. "It's not illegal to track your own employees inside your own building," he says, adding that the data could be helpful in improving firm and worker performance.
But he cautions that employers are likely to want data on individual workers. "Not many service providers are going to refuse to give information to an employer that's paying the bill," says Mr. Maltby. "It would be very surprising if some provider doesn't start giving employers data about individual employees when they ask for it. That's not illegal. But do you really want your employers following around what you are doing? It's a creepy way to work."
Sensors also can reveal how workers use office space. Kimberly-Clark Corp. employees frequently griped that the consumer-product company's Neenah, Wis., offices were short on meeting space. Kimberly-Clark placed space-usage sensors offered by furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. beneath chairs and in conference rooms. It found that groups of three to four employees were gathering in meeting rooms designed for much larger numbers, says Mike Dietzen, a facilities planner.
As a result, the company carved out more and smaller conference spaces designed for small groups. Space-availability complaints have gone down significantly since, Mr. Dietzen says.
Putting badges on workers is just the beginning of a broader trend, researchers say. As companies rethink their offices, many are looking into "smart buildings," wired with technologies that show workers' location in real time and suggest meetings with colleagues nearby.
Philip Ross, CEO of workplace consulting firm UnWork.com, says these features will encourage "engineered serendipity."
To be sure, companies lured by the promise of fine-grained data on their workforces must figure out what to do with it.
Chuck Kelly, a senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, relied on space-use sensors this past fall to see how workers used the property-management firm's downtown Chicago workspace.
"We wanted to see if the perception of how they were using their space matched up to the reality of how they are using their space," he says.
The project generated a slew of graphs and spreadsheets, but about three months later, Mr. Kelly is still trying to extract relevant insights from the noise. It's been a challenge, he says, "getting your head around all that data and what it means."