Tracking Employees to Boost Productivity

Monday, March 18, 2013

A tracking device to monitor employee interaction. (Alex Johnson/WGBH)

What goes into the average work day? A walk to lunch, a walk to the bathroom, a few clicks through your favorite blog, a conversation by the coffee maker. These behaviors are natural aspects of office culture in the United States and they are increasingly being monitored by employers.

More companies are turning to tracking devices to learn about employee behavioral patterns in the hopes of boosting productivity. This kind of data collection is just one of many new attempts to predict our behavior by monitoring how we live, work, and make purchases.

Ben Waber is the president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a social sensing technology company that monitors employee interaction. Kenneth Cukier is co-author, along with Victor Mayer-Schonberger, of "Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think."

Waber explains that his company collects gigabytes of data on each person being monitored each day. They analyze email data, online chat data, and phone call data with the consent of the employees. "The idea," Waber says, "is to really understand: How are people collaborating? How are different teams collaborating with each other and how does that relate to the strategy of the organization? And really understanding: What are the things that make people happy and productive at work?"

For the first time we are able to "datafy" how employees interact and what we are learning is revealing. For instance, Culkier says, "What we found when we looked at IBM, in their famous Rüschlikon lab outside of Zurich, is that…this was the lab that was responsible for many of their Noble Prizes in the 20th century…and one of the reasons why it was so successful is that they built in, almost inadvertently, ways for employees to collaborate with each other."

Waber explains that this workplace data is not just beneficial to employers: "One of the reasons why over that last year we've gotten over 90 percent participation at every company we’ve gone to is because people understand that these things are what make them happy and effective. But right now they have no way to show to management, 'Hey, you know what, I shouldn’t eat lunch at my desk, I should be able to go out to lunch with my colleagues because actually those interactions are where I get a better understanding of what people are doing, we get new ideas, and we just kind of form a more supportive community.'"

Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions


Dr. Ben Waber

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman

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May. 28 2013 07:07 AM
Mitch from Maplewood, NJ

These guys may think that they've come up with rules for using these techniques and tools fairly. What is so obvious to everyone else in the world is that this opens the door for MUCH more abuse than positive benefit. What a lame excuse that this is tailored for IT workers and upper management. We've all followed "top" IT companies to a workplace that NEVER stops with all employees carrying devices that make it incumbant for them to work way past what used to be thought of as "normal" work hours. It's time for fixed salaried IT workers of the US to organize and unionize.

Mar. 18 2013 03:47 PM
Ellyn from New York

I work in rehab which is largely paid for by Medicare and Medicaid. Our business is rapidly changing. Once I was a therapist treating individuals. Now with sharply declining budgets at the federal and state level requirements regarding the documentation of our treatments are being significantly increased in order to justify each treatment provided. Now I write more than I actually treat. Simultaneously, as medical records become computerized, we are monitored as to how we spend each minute of our day. We can be penalized for bathroom breaks We now work for our computers, not for our patients

Mar. 18 2013 03:17 PM
Christie from Salt Lake City, UT

At my job, we have already had cameras in place for years but it is only used for security. I don't think anyone has time to watch what each employee is doing all day!
I personally track my own working behavior in 15 minute increments or more so that I am sure I am productive. It is the only way to make sure I keep myself on track. If I have a positive work ethic, I expect that a positive working relationship with my boss will be the product. If I have a positive attitude about self-regulation of my time, I expect any feedback about my productivity will be welcomed information.

Mar. 18 2013 02:11 PM
Mo Lakes

My husband works in a major car dealership. They have just added a bank of cameras in the shop ... about 20 cameras throughout the facility. There has been no announcement or discussion about the addition of these cameras into the work environment. The employees, including my husband, are actually traumatized by this addition. Is their boss going to sit at his computer and watch what the workers are doing? Is there a problem with thefts (this really isn't possible)? Is their insurance requiring it? Is it to provide visual evidence when they fire someone? My husband is a hardworking, honest, and trustworthy employee. He feels very badly about the addition of these cameras.

Mar. 18 2013 01:22 PM
Dan Hortsch from Portland, Oregon

This technology is a sure way to demoralize a work staff (in my pre-retirement situation, a newspaper newsroom). Good managers can do the job the right way. Bad managers will use information the wrong way (and they won't be better managers). I don't buy the reassurances of the speakers. (My public radio station just lost connection with The Takeaway. Maybe someone decided the interaction wasn't productive.)

Mar. 18 2013 01:21 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

If your company brings in tracking devices to learn about behavioral patterns, it is time to put your resume together. Don't take it personally.

In the eighties these companies which monitored employee interaction went under the title "Quality Control."

Quality Control - Heads will roll we used to say at Time Inc.

Ben Waber can even believe that the basic idea of his company is "how are people collaborating," and that he is trying to do good...but most companies, especially large Corporations are just looking for an excuse to cut labor, and will use his technology in a political way.

Mar. 18 2013 12:05 PM

This will be used to HAMMER labor. I find i amusing that it's being described in glowing terms when in fact this technology is an electronic SHACKLE and CHAIN to create horrific work environments. Those "opt in" ideas? Privacy ideas? Without legislation to enforce them (and that won't happen), those ideas won't be part of the implementation.

One more step to virtual enslavement.

Mar. 18 2013 09:16 AM

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