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Would you let your boss track your data?

Employee badges that record 40 types of information can lead to workplace efficiency — and some questions.

Shutterstock-Globe staff illustration

Anecdotes, says Ben Waber, do not make for good business strategy. “A pet peeve of mine is when executives use them to make large-scale personnel decisions,” says the CEO and cofounder of the four-year-old productivity analytics firm Humanyze. They’ll take a personal experience and use it to restructure their whole company. To Waber, a story is just one data point. Humanyze was founded on the idea that smart management decisions require hundreds of them, if not millions.

To capture these data, Waber and his colleagues developed a sociometric badge, a digital device about the size of a deck of cards that hangs around an employee’s neck. It records 40 types of information, such as movement, features of speech (but not content), and location within the office.

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Waber began working on the device during his PhD studies at MIT, using a nascent model to predict — with 85 percent accuracy — the outcome of negotiations by measuring things like speech speed and modulation. After a German bank employed the badges to measure face-to-face team interactions, Waber and his colleagues used the resulting data to predict productivity and worker satisfaction. “Our metrics were six times more predictive than anything else being collected — survey data, e-mail data, all of it,” he says. The bank’s marketing division reorganized based on the results, and Humanyze (nee Sociometric Solutions) was born.

Humanyze, which announced $1 million in seed funding in February, has offices in Boston and Palo Alto and counts Fortune 500 companies such as Deloitte among its 20 clients.

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The pitch to executives is enticing: We’ll show you in real terms how to be more efficient and productive. Waber offers Humanyze’s work with Bank of America call centers as an example. After finding that 80 percent of group interaction — a time ripe for sharing best practices and tips — occurred during overlaps in lunch breaks, the bank aligned the coffee breaks of a select team. Measured against a control group with regular, staggered breaks, the experimental group saw their stress readings drop by 19 percent, their call completion speed jump by 23 percent, and their turnover rate fall from 40 percent to 12 percent.

The pitch to employees can be a bit tougher. There are obvious questions about privacy, to which Waber responds that Humanyze is opt-in and that all of the data delivered to employers is anonymized. (Humanyze claims only 10 percent of employees decline to wear the badges and offers placebo ones to workers who prefer a quiet rebellion.) Waber also pushes the personal benefits. “You want to go to a better place to work, right?” he asks. “You can actually help figure out what works and what makes people happy, and we can use that to change your workplace.” There’s a role model aspect, too, with data reports able to show workers how the top producers operate. “Should I speak at more meetings? Should I be more physically active?” he says. “It essentially becomes a guidebook for your career.”

Shrinking the size of the badge may help make employees comfortable, and Humanyze is in the process of rolling out a 30 percent smaller device and talking to corporate ID badge manufacturers about adding their tech to current designs. “Ten years out, these sensors will be in your clothes,” says Waber. He’s not worried about hardware. That’s the easy part. “What’s difficult is understanding the messy data of what’s going on in the real world.”

INSIDE THE BADGE

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Weight: 110 grams

Storage capacity: 4 GB

Components: Two microphones, accelerometer, Bluetooth connection

Operating system: Homemade, the first version shortly before rollout at a German bank; “If anyone ever asks you to build an operating system, say no,” says Ben Waber

Dan Morrell is the editor of Harvard Business School’s alumni magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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