Jun 24, 2014

    Big Brother's watching... at workplaces


    A DIGITAL Big Brother is coming to the workplace, for better or for worse.

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

    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 centre 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' behaviour 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 senior staff lawyer at 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, he was told, tracked every waiter, every order, and every dish and drink, looking for patterns that might suggest employee theft.

    But that torrent of detailed information, parsed another way, cast a computer-generated spotlight on the most productive workers.

    Mr Sullivan's data shone brightly. And when his employer opened a fourth restaurant in the Dallas area in 2012, he was made 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 emerging 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 into the new technologies.

    Sociometric Solutions advises companies using sensor-rich ID badges worn by employees. These sociometric badges, equipped with two microphones, a location sensor and an accelerometer, monitor the communications behaviour of individuals - tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who spoke to whom and for how long.

    Sociometric Solutions is already 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. Mr 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 is going to have to deal with the workplace, and not just consumer issues," Mr Waber said.

    The payoff for well-designed workplace monitoring can be significant, he added. 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 centres 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 into the daily routine. Later, call-handling productivity increased more than 10 per cent, and turnover declined nearly 70 per cent, Mr Waber said.

    Bryan Koop, a commercial office developer who has worked with Sociometric Solutions, pointed 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 cubicles with lower dividers.

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

    Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Olin Business School at Washington University in St Louis, said that digital tools for workplace surveillance can be simplistically viewed as either good or bad.

    "The real challenge for all of us is what is the right level, and in what context is it being done," he said.

    Prof 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 Mr Sullivan works, on employee behaviour.

    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 US$108 a week per restaurant. More startling, revenue increased an average of US$2,982 a week at each restaurant, about 7 per cent, a sizeable gain in the low-margin restaurant industry.

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

    Today, Mr Sullivan is the one using the software to monitor workers. For example, he said, the data might show that someone who is efficient at serving several tables is not very good at sales, if that person's average ticket is less than the restaurant's.

    That server, he said, would benefit from advice on how to talk to customers and suggest featured dishes and drinks.