Boston-based company Sociometric Solutions offers a “sociometric badge” that gauges how you interact with your co-workers and tracks your every move. The device’s built-in microphone captures the wearer’s tone of voice and how much you talk and listen. An accelerometer measures movement, an infra-red sensor detects face-to-face interaction, while the proximity sensor calculates how close one badge wearer stands to another.
Worn over a month or two, the sociometer logs an employee’s activity and conversations. Sociometric Solutions can then combine this analysis with data about the wearer’s social media use and email exchanges to determine what needs to be changed to improve a company’s communication levels and employee efficacy.
HOW THE NSA INCREASES UNDERSTANDING
While useful, this raises privacy issues. CEO Ben Waber, who set up the company in 2011 with a group of fellow PhD alumni from
MIT Media Lab, a research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stresses that privacy concerns “are very real and very important for us to address.” Crucially, commissioning companies have no access to individual data. Waber and his 10 co-workers anonymize the data in reports to clients, charting broader patterns and connections to productivity. Moreover, participation is voluntary – although so far, the participation rate has been 90%.
Waber admits that data-collecting technology lies “pretty much open to abuse.” Sociometric Solutions doesn’t expose the data it collects; however, “in the US, another company could legally force participants to wear these things and there’s nothing an individual could do about it,” Waber acknowledges. “It’s important that we guarantee these rights to participants through legislation.”
Participation rates have yet to decline following recent revelations about the NSA’s data gathering. On the contrary, the scandal has increased people’s understanding about what data collecting means, Waber states. In his opinion, the meta data (who is talking to whom and how often) collected by NSA is actually “far more powerful than any [other] kind of content you could hope to collect. “You can predict a lot from meta data,” Waber continues, “such as how likely you are to be depressed, your income levels, your income trajectory. I’d actually feel more comfortable if the government had said that they are trying to listen to our calls, because I know that computers aren’t very good at that.”
We may live in an increasingly digitalized world, but the findings from sociometric analysis stress that old-school communication is best: face time is still the easiest way to build connections. Modern ways of working, such as extensive telecommuting, meanwhile, cut down people’s communication, Waber concludes. Mass emailing of colleagues or long meetings are less effective at transferring knowledge than informal interactions, such as random conversations with workmates you’ve bumped into in the corridor or chatting at someone’s desk. “What yields success is collaboration with other people in the organization,” he says.
Simple changes, such as reorganizing office layout so that people can chat to each other, can more easily boost employee performance and help build up tight-knit networks. Furthermore, scheduling group coffee breaks and introducing communal areas where people could informally meet colleagues from their own as well as different departments were clearly shown to enable network-building and boost morale and productivity levels.
While the products we develop and work with today are becoming increasingly complex, the way people are managed hasn’t fundamentally changed, Waber points out. Tomorrow’s workplace might make use of high-tech innovations, such as sociometric sensors, but the workplace itself will still look like it did a hundred years ago – a configuration in which personal and work lives weaved together and you socialized with your colleagues, thereby deepening your working relationship. “What companies like Google and Facebook are trying to do is to build up a community around work. People there want to spend time at work and know each other very well,” Waber concludes. Even the way they communicate.