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Big Brother & Big Data: Good for Productivity?

Althea Chang
Big Data Download

Collecting behavioral data on employees can improve productivity and cohesion among workers, according to recent studies by Sociometric Solutions, a firm that uses its technology to analyze work environments.

Using its own sensing devices and algorithms, Sociometric tracks speech patterns, location, movement and posture in the workplace, and based on the data gathered, suggests ways to improve interactions between employees and employers and even office floor plans.

After tracking workers at a Bank of America call center, Sociometric suggested a change in break scheduling. And after the call center switch from staggered 15-minute breaks to having teams take breaks all at the same time, productivity increased by 23 percent and team cohesion increased 18 percent, according to Sociometric founder Ben Waber.

Across the board, based on work with companies including BofA (BAC), Steelcase (SCS) and Cubist Pharmaceuticals (CBST), Sociometric found that taking breaks together often led to gatherings "around the water cooler"--which led to more discussions about work. As a result, productivity levels rose.

"It's really important moving forward for this to be standard practice," Waber told Big Data Download. Even if it's not through his own company, tracking employee behavior could mean major cost savings, he said. If Bank of America implemented the concurrent break structure in all of its call centers, the company could save about $15 million a year, Waber said.

Of course, what some would call a "Big Brother" approach to productivity improvement could become a privacy concern for employees. But Sociometric says carrying a tracking badge is voluntary, conversations aren't recorded and companies don't receive data on individuals. They receive only data that apply to the team as a whole.