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Digital Big Brother is coming to your workplace

  • Article by: Steve Lohr
  • New York Times
  • June 21, 2014 - 7:45 PM

Advanced technological tools are beginning to make it possible to measure and monitor employees as never before, with the promise of fundamentally changing how we work — along with raising concerns about privacy and the specter of unchecked surveillance in the workplace.

Through these new means, companies have found, for example, that workers are more productive if they have more social interaction. So a bank’s call center introduced a shared 15-minute coffee break, and a pharmaceutical company replaced coffee makers used by a few marketing workers with a larger cafe area. The result? Increased sales and less turnover.

Yet the prospect of fine-grained, digital monitoring of workers’ behavior worries privacy advocates. Companies, they say, have few legal obligations other than informing employees. “Whether this kind of monitoring is effective or not, it’s a concern,” said Lee Tien, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

When Jim Sullivan began working as a waiter at a Dallas restaurant a few years ago, he was being watched — not by the prying eyes of a human boss, but by intelligent software.

The digital sentinel tracked every waiter, every ticket, and every dish and drink, looking for patterns that might suggest worker theft. But that torrent of detailed information, parsed another way, cast a computer-generated spotlight on the most productive workers.

Sullivan’s data shone brightly. And when his employer opened a fourth restaurant in 2012, Sullivan was named the manager — a winner in the increasingly quantified world of work.

Still, even people involved in the workplace analytics business say rules governing privacy are needed, if the new industry is to ­flourish.

Ben Waber is chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a start-up firm that grew out of his doctoral research at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, which conducts research in the new technologies. Sociometric Solutions advises companies using sensor-rich employee ID badges. These sociometric badges, equipped with two microphones, a location sensor and an accelerometer, monitor the communications behavior of individuals — tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long.

By now, Sociometric Solutions is working with 20 companies in the banking, technology, pharmaceutical and health care industries, involving thousands of employees. The workers must opt in to have their data collected. Waber’s company signs a contract with each employee guaranteeing that no individual data is given to the employer (only aggregate statistics), and that no conversations are recorded.

“Privacy policy,” Waber said, “is going to have to deal with the workplace and not just the consumer issues.”

The payoff for well-designed workplace monitoring, Waber said, can be significant. The underlying theme of human dynamics research is that people are social learners, so arranging work to increase productive face-to-face communication yields measurable benefits.

For example, the company studied workers in Bank of America call centers and observed that those in tight-knit communications groups were more productive and less likely to quit. To increase social communication, the shared 15-minute coffee break was introduced to the daily routine. Afterward, call-handling productivity increased more than 10 percent, and turnover declined nearly 70 percent, Waber said.

Waber’s company also provided the data-guided insight to help the pharmaceutical company increase sales with its new cafe area. At a tech company, his company found, workers who sat at larger tables in the cafeteria, thus communicating more, were more productive than workers who sat at smaller tables.

Bryan Koop, a commercial office developer who has worked with Sociometric Solutions, points to the potential for more scientifically designed work environments. There are current fashions in office design, he said, that are assumed to increase worker productivity, like stationing workers at communal bench-style tables and constructing work cubes with lower ­dividers.

“We don’t know if those tactics work,” Koop said. “What we’re starting to see is the ability to quantitatively measure things instead of just going by intuition.”

Viewed as good and bad

Digital tools for workplace surveillance, according to Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, can be simplistically viewed as either good or bad. “The real challenge for all of us,” he said, “is what is the right level and in what context is it being done.”

Pierce was a co-author of a research paper published last year that examined the effect of the monitoring software used in restaurants, like the one in Dallas where Sullivan works, on employee behavior.

The researchers studied the data on all transactions and patterns suggesting theft, before and after the software was installed, at 392 restaurants, in 39 states. The savings from the theft alerts themselves were modest, at $108 a week per restaurant. More startling, revenue increased an average of $2,982 a week at each restaurant, about 7 percent, a sizable gain in the low-margin restaurant industry.

Servers, knowing they were being monitored, pushed customers to have that dessert or a second beer, which resulted in the increased revenue for the restaurant and tips for themselves.

The monitoring software is a product from NCR called Restaurant Guard. The product, introduced in 2009, exploits the rapid progress in so-called big data technology, for collecting, storing and analyzing vast amounts of data. “That’s the big change that makes this possible,” said Jeff Hughes, general manager for digital insight at NCR.

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