Benefits to Collecting Personal Data in the Workplace?

Amid the revelations of Facebook’s sale of personal data to firms many users wouldn’t want to have their personal information, I kept having the same thought: What’s the big deal?

My concern was more about the companies that Facebook was selling the data to—including possibly companies paid to promote untrue news stores on social media during the 2016 election season—than the fact that Facebook was able to get and use that personal information about me. If a site I frequent can use my personal data, including frequent words that come up in my newsfeed and the record of where I click, I don’t mind because that means it can present me with content tailored specifically for me. I take responsibility not to “share” information I wouldn’t want others to have, and I feel smart enough to disregard disreputable advertising, or “news,” that happens to pop up. If a business can provide a customized, more convenient user experience for me, they are welcome to my “personal data.”

In the workplace, artificial intelligence, with the help of high-tech cameras, may be gathering ever more data about employees. At first this can be alarming, but then it can be just interesting and spark curiosity. A piece last week in the Economist explored how companies are monitoring employees to identify not just security risks, but risks to its employees’ happiness. The article details life at Humanyze, a firm that provides “people analytics.” It gathers and uses those “analytics” about its own workforce, with employees wearing “an ID badge the size of a credit card and the depth of a book of matches. It contains a microphone that picks up whether they are talking to one another, Bluetooth and infrared sensors to monitor where they are, and an accelerometer to record when they move.”

I have to admit, the microphone part freaks me out. I’ve been known to gossip (with the target of the gossip usually deserving it) from time to time. I would NOT be in favor of a monitoring system that could pick up and transmit the content of the communication, but I wouldn’t mind if the system simply picked up that a face-to-face verbal interaction was taking place. That could be useful information to help a workplace create an environment that made the kinds of interactions its employees liked to engage in easier. If you know how frequently employees talk to each other, rather than e-mail or call one another, then you may know more about which employees should be seated near each other, and where meeting areas for casual get-togethers should be created. On the other hand, a company could use the information to crack down on employees it feels are “wasting time,” which would be counterproductive, as most employees won’t (and shouldn’t) tolerate working in a corporate police state. Just as I didn’t mind Facebook selling my “personal information” to reputable advertisers, I don’t mind companies monitoring my movements and interactions in the office as long as the information is used to make the work experience better.

Japanese conglomerate Hitachi seems to believe it can use high-tech monitoring devices to do just that. In fact, the company sells what it calls a happiness meter. “Employee welfare is a particular challenge in Japan, which has a special word, “karoshi,” for death by overwork,” the Economist writes. “Hitachi’s algorithms infer mood levels from physical movement and pinpoint business problems that might not have been noticed before, says Kazuo Yano, Hitachi’s chief scientist. For example, one manufacturing client found that when young employees spent more than an hour in a meeting, whole teams developed lower morale.”

If a device could monitor how much time I spend in meetings and make long meetings less likely, I would be appreciative. I also would love a device that could monitor how much time my boss spends sitting at his desk doing work, as opposed to wandering the cubicle aisles and offices schmoozing. I bet your company has many schoomzers-in-chief, especially among the older, “tenured” set. Wouldn’t it be great to know who those people are, and see if you could encourage them to spend more time completing deliverables and less time making the rounds backslapping?

The right kind of monitoring also can create a healthier workforce, alerting you to how many smokers you have in your employ, and how much time those smokers spend outside the front door, passing second-hand smoke along to co-workers and visitors. It might give you ideas for smoking cessation programs that could meet a few times a week during the lunch hour. Or you may notice that your average employee is only getting a fraction of the steps recommended for good health. You then could incentivize work groups to take walking meetings whenever weather permits.

When used appropriately, more information about your workforce—even when gathered through high-tech monitoring—could be a great thing. The more data a well-intentioned company has about its workforce, the more chance it has to create a workplace that works for more than just its executive group.

What kind of data do you currently collect about how your employees work and interact with one another? What high-tech devices would you consider adding to help you collect this information and more? How would you ensure the information wouldn’t go too far, and that what’s collected would be used for a good purpose?

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