The Quantified Workplace: Technology vs Trust?

Glass Bead Consulting

Jo, an Account Manager is being taken to the office in a BUG, a BeemerUberGoogle driverless car.  She is discussing her day with her automated coaching partner, Sirius.   “I notice that you had less alpha-rhythm sleep last night.   I suggest you have some breakfast, to increase your energy levels. At 11am you have a meeting with the new Client Executive.  She is usually sceptical initially but warms up.  Remember to ask an open question, and smile to help her feel at ease.  I notice that Lee, your Insights Manager, has a different socialising pattern and lower productivity since coming back from sick leave last week – might be worth checking in with him today while in the office?”

This futuristic scenario requires you to suspend your disbelief!

Firstly, it meshes different data sets that we don’t measure at the moment – on performance, location and personal biometric data.

Secondly, it assumes we have a robust framework for the prediction of behaviour, and we are not quite there yet.

And finally, it assumes employees, like Jo, are willing for employers to use their personal data on movement, diet and performance in this way.

All currently outrageous, but could this type of insight be possible in the future?

People Analytics and Social Sensing Technology

In his book “People Analytics”, Ben Waber, President and CEO of Humanyze,  explains how Social Sensing Technology could transform business.

His team use Sociometric badges which they ask employees to wear for workplace experiments.  The badges are like a large ID card stuffed with sensors that can measure movement, face to face speech, vocal intonation, who is talking to whom and for how long.  The experiments all require employee opt-in, and have produced some interesting insights already.

Jos De Blok, CEO of the innovative community care organisation, Buurtzorg, was asked,

“What is the optimal team size?”

His answer was 12. Why? 

“Because we don’t have bigger tables.”

A witty and pragmatic answer, perhaps, but this makes assumptions about office design and team effectiveness.  

Using Sociometry badges, for example, Humanyze assessed whether a redesigned office boosted employee collaboration, or employees were actually using that treadmill in the gym they had lobbied so hard for.   When we have choices on the design and layout of our offices, we can actually use employee movement data, in addition to other communication data, to analyse collaboration patterns of employees.  In Office Design, there are many questions where this kind of approach can help. Do campuses actually yield better interaction patterns than offices with thousands of people on different floors?  When is open seating better than having your own desk?  Should we put long or short tables in our offices?  The use of physical space is underused as a tool for changing patterns of collaboration and behaviour.

Waber gives plenty of other examples of using the Sociometry badges in the workplace. For example, Corporate Epidemiology, when you get a dose of “man-flu” (this is a disease btw) do you tough it out, or stay at home?  Employee tracking can help guide the best workplace policies and practices to reduce employee sickness. 

Thanks to those ‘perennial office guinea-pigs’ working in call-centres, a study on Employee Burnout with Bank America found that strong cohesion was linked to lower stress levels.

Waber also approaches the question, How to encourage Innovation?   Who is more creative, the team behind Bart Simpson or Eric Cartmen?   Both very funny cartoons, but did you know an entire episode of South Park is conceived and animated in 6 days, whereas, an episode of The Simpsons is produced over the course of 6 months using a Korean animation studio?   Waber outlines the very different creative processes and declares South Park the winner based on ratings – Doh!  He studied three R&D teams to understand creativity in general, and found the amount of time spent interacting with team members was positively correlated with creativity.

Swipe right for better data

The workforce data we hold at the moment is often static, out of date and relies on self-report rather than actual behaviour.   Data on our actual behaviour is far better than our self-reported data.  All of us have completed the obligatory annual Employee Engagement survey at least once in our life, by circling 4 out of 5 on every item, without even reading the questions.  And if it wasn’t you, your colleagues have done this.  An example from online dating illustrates the relative value of self-reported data vs actual behaviour. 

“People might list 'money' as an important quality in a partner, but then we see them messaging all the artists and guitar players," Amarnath Thombre, president of tries to get around this by basing recommendations on people’s activity and actions rather than solely on their answers to the questionnaires.  (from Bernard Marr’s article, Can Big Data Find Your Next Valentine?)

Using sensor data in combination with other data sets has great potential for learning about employee behaviour and providing insight on organisational and business choices.  A natural next step is to link our employee data with our customer data.

Designing a better Customer AND Employee Experience

Many organisations are experimenting with using sensor data to understand customers’ behaviour.  Amazon have plenty of online data on customers, but this is a challenge for high street retailers.  There is a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behaviour, using video surveillance and signals from their smartphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in a particular aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it. 

Another futuristic scenario from retail…

30% of your shop sales employees agree to wear the sociometry badges.   Over a few months, you gradually test your hypotheses, run experiments and work out how to increase sales, and gather more accurate information on customer preferences which positively influences the next fashion buying cycle.  Your employees start to see the benefits of the approach and more “opt-in”.  The cycle is positively reinforcing over time, prospective employees who are not comfortable don’t apply, you bring in new employees who get up to peak productivity quicker.  You roll-out this model through your 500 shops.  Customers are happier.  You beat the competition. You win.

Designing our customer experience based on insights from actual behaviour and linking to employee behaviours could reap great rewards for some organisations.   Or from an employee perspective, this would mean designing our employee experience based on insights from actual behaviour with customers.

From Quantified Self to Quantified Workplace

Quantified Self is the movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical).  It is a big industry, think Fitbit, Apple Watches etc.   BYOW – Bring your own Wearables is an emerging trend, see Putting Wearables to Work form, which expects nearly 3x growth in wearables across the enterprise in the next two years.

The Quantified Self movement has a strong set of disciples, you are probably close to one.  The reported results are impressive in health, fitness, managing chronic disease, sleep, mood and habits.

My view is that if free wearables are offered on a voluntary basis in certain workplaces, you would get three broad groups, those with absolutely no interest, those interested for a while, and those who love the idea and utilise the tools.

Squaring The Circle

What happens when wearing tracking devices becomes compulsory for employees? 

We are already starting to hear about cases where capturing personal data on location has gone too far for employees.  For example the case of the woman in California fired after disabling here GPS on her work phone.  Another example was the outrage after The Daily Telegraph, in the UK, put sensors under the journalists desks.  Lesson learned – always get permission from employees first, especially when your employees are journalists!

In Dave Eggers novel, “The Circle”, a new employee called Mae joins the World’s most powerful and influential company. Imagine a mega-merger between Google, Facebook and Apple.  The Circle’s goal is to have all aspects of human existence, from voting to love affairs, flow through its portal, the sole portal in the World.  This is the same for all employees, including Mae.  This is where the ‘hairs on your back stand on end’ and we bring in an Orwellian sense of outrage!   The novel brings up some great questions about privacy, transparency and even identity. 

This type of data could be used unscrupulously by employers, “How well it is received by staff will probably entirely depend on the way it is used,” says Bernard Marr, an expert in data and analytics in business.  “If it is used as a disciplinary tool focused on the behaviour of individuals, it is sure to lead to resentment. But when utilised as a way to gain an overview of the company, it will probably generate fewer complaints – and more useful insights.”

So any whiff of dystopia and you lose.  You will not attract or keep employees.

The winning organisations will be those that empower the workforce, are transparent and share the benefits.

The Quantified Workplace will be introduced, but at the speed of employee trust.

Trust Trumps Technology

If we don’t have employee trust, then there will be a backlash on using more extensive personal employee data.

Frederic Laloux describes the future of management in his RSA interview, “How to Become a Soulful Organisation”.  The future of management will definitely not be based on a time and measures study, the focus will be to empower purposeful teams to make the right decisions.

If we don’t have trust or empowered employees, all we will have is Digital Taylorism – a modern version of “scientific management” that threatens to dehumanise the workplace.

This would be a great mistake.   Instead we should provide employees with tools to manage their work, themselves and their machines more effectively.

We need to ditch Industrial Age thinking.  Organisations will thrive if they empower employees to make the right decisions and provide meaningful work.  The idea of the Quantified-Self is about self-improvement.   Whoever gets to the Quantified Workplace with a willing workforce will reap the rewards.  The rewards will be enormous – with greater insight on customer and employee behaviour.

The winners will not be those who enable the technology, but those who construct a new contract with employees, based on trust.

Finally, we catch up with Jo…

“Jo gets taken home from the office in her BUG driverless car and reviews a positive day with Sirius.  She approves an AmazonDrone delivery so her fridge will be topped up before she gets home.  Later on, she puts her feet up, selects an immersive movie, opens a bottle of wine and then the most satisfying task of the day – she reaches for her smartphone and presses the OFF button.”

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