Fix This/Workplace

The Case for Wearing Productivity Sensors on the Job


Ben Waber, president and CEO, Sociometric Solutions

Courtesy Sociometric Solutions

Ben Waber, president and CEO, Sociometric Solutions

Sociometric Solutions’ Ben Waber joins our experts discussing e-mail overload, open office plans, telecommuting, and eating lunch at their desks.

Tell me about the idea of putting sensors on people at work.
We already actually wear sensors when we’re at work, with our company ID badges. We’ve added some additional sensors so that we can understand things like who talks to whom and how people talk to each other. So looking at the tone of voice, how much you talk, how much you interrupt, how quickly you speak. Then we can see—if a particular team is doing really well at work—why is it working so effectively?

What have you found that was counterintuitive?
In one example, at a pharmaceutical company that we worked with, if you increased the amount that salespeople interacted with people outside their team by 10 percent, their sales increased by 10 percent. And the most important interactions happened at the coffee machine.

Should people be allowed to work from home?
It was in February that Marissa Mayer made this decision at Yahoo! (YHOO), right? And there was a lot of backlash. But if you’re a programmer, the quality of your code depends on the code of many other people. We’ve seen that it will take you 32 percent longer to develop code if you don’t communicate with these people. And we’ve found that when people work just in the same building, about 55 percent of people would have at least one communication about a software dependency; so 45 percent of the time, they didn’t. For remote groups, this is essentially flipped. And we just looked at digital communications; that’s not even looking at face-to-face communication. If you back up the numbers for Yahoo, the company will save about $150 million every year by bringing everyone into its headquarters.

But I would make a distinction between remote working, which is never seeing the people you work with, and flexibility, where a couple times a month people work from home. The data is actually equally clear that that doesn’t really have an effect, because, not surprisingly, if your kid is sick and you’re really stressed, you’re not going to be very effective.

Doesn’t the ability to measure everything that employees are doing at all times have a fraught history? People don’t particularly enjoy this sort of monitoring.
The privacy implications of the work we do are very clear to us. We will not give individual data to the companies we work with. You can’t see, “Where is Bob at 2:30 on Tuesdays?” There’s no good business case for why you need that data. I do think that we need legal protections, though. Because, in the U.S., especially, it’s the Wild West around people-analytics data.

But, importantly, our work is all on an opt-in basis. We’ve gotten over 90 percent participation in every single rollout we’ve done.

What are some ways to change the physical workspace that have potential in the short term?
We’re going to see that data enables us to do things with the digital world in the physical world. We are going to see the sort of A/B testing that companies like Amazon (AMZN) do, with their websites, in actual organizations. You’ll have experiments where you’ll fail a lot of the time, but, very often, you’ll succeed. As technology improves and the data is constantly coming in, it becomes easier and easier to make those experiments.

Where are we going wrong in the workplace?
The amount of time that people are spending in teleconferences, where there’s 20 people on the call and only two people are talking and everyone else is pretty much bored out of their minds, that’s pretty incredible.

How would you describe your physical workspace?
When I’m in, I have a pretty messy workspace. And when I’m out of the office, I make sure to call every one of my direct reports for at least five minutes a day. About half of the time, it ends up being about something work-related, but the other half of the time it’s talking about their kids, talking about a movie we saw, or just anything.

Do you eat lunch at your desk?
Never. I will never do that and, actually, no one in the company eats lunch at their desk.

For more Fix This/Workplace, visit: www.businessweek.com/fix-this/workplace.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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