The Pursuit of Corporate Happiness

Biometric sensors can gauge worker productivity but carry real risks as well

Spectral Lines
Photographer: Dan Saelinger; Stylist: Birte von Kampen

If you work at a company with 50 or more employees, chances are you’ve filled out an annual employee satisfaction or engagement survey. You answered questions about your working conditions, your bosses, the money you make, and the benefits you get, as well as questions that try to capture your emotional attachment to the job you do and the people you work with. 


Your responses, whether made thoughtfully, in haste, in anger, or indifferently, were correlated with those of your fellow workers and statistically analyzed to give your bosses a snapshot of workplace well-being. The premise is that happy, satisfied, and engaged workers are more productive and efficient.


But what if we could dispense with the surveys? What if managerial honchos could gather that same information directly, not just once a year but every minute of every workday—say, from various kinds of sensors? It may sound like science fiction, but it’s already here. That’s the concept behind the technology developed and described by Hitachi researcher Kazuo Yano, an IEEE Fellow, and his colleagues in this issue’s “Sensing Happiness.”


The idea is that by wearing biometric sensors at the office—in company identification badges, for example—employees and employers can gain insights into themselves and the ways they work together as a team. The sensors measure the wearer’s movements, interactions with others, location, and voice level. Those measurements then get uploaded to a central data center, where they’re stored and analyzed. Much the way embedded sensors gauge the health of bridges and buildings, these wearable sensors offer a fine-grained view of what’s really going on in the workplace.


The resulting information is used to study many aspects of work and working life, including the effectiveness of corporate mergers, the impact on workers of “happiness boosting” exercises, and the effectiveness of office layouts—do the most fruitful exchanges occur in the kitchen or in the conference room? The sensors can also help assess workers’ daily patterns of activity and mood and how they correspond to peaks in productivity and focus. And it’s not just an academic exercise: When people are given the results of such monitoring, they’re able to improve the way they work and interact.


MIT researcher Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a pioneer and proponent of behavioral biosensing and what he calls reality mining, says that “data mining is about finding patterns in digital stuff. I’m more interested specifically in finding patterns in humans.” It’s these patterns that are being used to evaluate and change individual and organizational behavior.


Of course, not all of us relish the prospect of becoming a node in a computer-generated pattern. Data may be value free, but the algorithms used to analyze them, and the people who interpret the results, are not. So a certain amount of trepidation is warranted about who would control—and own—the digital profiling of everything about us, including our habits and personalities.


Pentland has been outspoken about the need to study potential problems and to take the legal steps necessary to protect us from digital profiling and misused databases. First and foremost, we must understand what the data can and cannot tell us. Then come the other key issues, the ones related to privacy, control, ownership, and rights. When gigabytes of data exist about you and your habits, it should be reasonable for you to ask who controls it or has access to it.


Pentland’s proposed solution is easy to state and hard to implement: You should have the right to access any and all personal data, you should be allowed to control who collects such data, and finally, you should be able to control the data itself. It should be your right to use it, amend it, or even destroy it, he insists.


Biometric sensing in the workplace has the potential to override the biases and blind spots that managers invariably carry with them, and to provide insights into patterns and routines they could never deduce for themselves. But the best bosses will continue to follow management guru Peter Drucker’s always relevant advice: The best way to find out what’s going on in your workplace is to push away from your desk, walk the floor, and see for yourself—that is, when you’re not wading through terabytes of employee biosensor data.


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