Examining the Use of Workplace Sensors

privacyBen Waber is the founder of Sociometric Solutions, a company that uses social sensing technology to analyze communication patterns among employees in order to create better organizations. He was recently interviewed by Businessweek.com about the use of sensors in the workplace. In the article, Weber said, “We already actually wear sensors when we’re at work, with our company ID badges. We’ve added some additional sensors so that we can understand things like who talks to whom and how people talk to each other. So looking at the tone of voice, how much you talk, how much you interrupt, how quickly you speak. Then we can see if a particular team is doing really well at work why is it working so effectively?”

Although Waber claims they have had over 90 percent opt-in participating in each rollout, there appear to be serious privacy implications. Zintro spoke with several organizational communication experts to get their opinion about the issue.

Eroca Gabriel focuses on the people and process sides of business change in health care, health insurance, and pharmaceuticals in her work. “In the 21st century, talk is work,” shares Gabriel. “So why not use sensors to measure who’s talking to whom about what. Yes, privacy is a huge constraint; yet, in an organization where trust is established (the key to implementation) – and where managers and employees have the choice to opt-in or not – measuring communication patterns via sensors differentiates those organizations who want to improve human performance from those who want to remain mediocre. How are we to understand communicating-at-work in the 21st century – and what works and what doesn’t – if we don’t measure it in real-time? Kudos goes to Ben Waber of Sociometric Solutions for leading the way into a new realm of understanding.”

Executive strategy consultant Nicoline Jaramillo agrees that privacy in the workplace should no longer be an expectation. “Employees sign contracts, work agreements, and user policies for systems they use during work hours,” explains Jaramillo. “Any activities they partake in on those systems is subjected to review. If there is any question of this, they should contact their organization’s legal department and understand the company’s policy on work monitoring.”

Jaramillo stresses that such employee monitoring is for basic work systems and different rules apply for communication pattern analysis. “I believe the type of assessments represented in communication pattern analysis falls into a category separate from employee monitoring,” she explains.  “In the event that communications and social interaction within the work place is going to be used as an efficiency evaluation, employees have a right to disclosure of the additional monitoring. The process of workforce evaluation and communication pattern mapping falls into a research category; therefore, should hold integrity and ethical practices similar to research projects before execution begins. This ensures employees participating in the study have informed consent and understand the extent to which their behaviors/interactions will be scrutinized.”

Jon Matsuo, CEO of Principled Solutions, also has some concerns about the use of sensors in the workplace. “Without adequate controls, to the extent that they are concealable, workplace sensors present ample opportunity for abuse and the violation of privacy,” says Matsuo.  “Depending on how inconspicuous they are, they appear to pose a risk that far outweighs their intended value. This is because the things they are measuring are individual personality style traits, and are unrelated to a team’s effectiveness. More germane to a team’s effectiveness is their ability to deal with problems, their agreement on priorities, the qualities of the leader, their ability to fulfill the needs of their stakeholders, and their ability to achieve their goals. Privacy is one risk, the other is relying on a tool to produce a result it was not designed for.”

Executive coach Thomas Eakin is the owner of BoomLife. Eakin describes a workplace situation that involved the misuse of video surveillance recordings. “There is always a risk that the information provided by solutions like the social sensing technology Sociometric Solutions has created will be misused through the illegitimate use of power by organizational leaders,” Eakin begins. “I once worked in an organization where the top-level manager misused video surveillance recordings. He spent a considerable amount of his time reviewing video from the previous day looking for minor policy infractions such as an employee not wearing ear plugs as they entered an area where hearing protection was required. He would then bring his evidence to the employee’s supervisor and demand they take disciplinary action. The point of the company’s investment in the video cameras was to protect against, and document, serious incidents such as theft, acts of violence, accidents in high-risk areas, etc. This manager however used the information he had privileged access to without just cause. Instead of trusting his supervisors to make on-the-spot corrections when they observed the infractions. Employee and supervisor attitudes plummeted over time as this manager abused his power and the technology available to him. Fear of making any mistake dominated their thoughts, creating undue stress and distraction from what they needed to be focused on, doing their jobs.”

Eakin stresses that he is not necessarily against the use of social sensing technology. “I am not saying social sensing technology should not be used,” he explains. “I’m saying Sociometric Solutions may want to consider limiting how organizational users gain access to the information collected. Perhaps they can provide their product as a web-based solution so the data is stored on their servers, and they can ensure the information is really used to discover ‘if a team is doing really well at work why it is working so effectively’ so they can try to replicate the conditions present. I believe there is an opportunity to learn what Waber claims the product is designed for, but what about the lower performing teams that operate in conflict? Knowing data is being recorded every minute will influence employees to display recordable behaviors that indicate they ‘get along’ even though conflict exists. Human beings must be able to operate in conflict in a given context, or they can never learn how to resolve it. An environment where opposing viewpoints are not permitted to be expressed will create plenty of unresolved conflict.”

Andre Walton, Ph. D., founder of organizational consulting group CreativePaths, says, “Yes, there are privacy issues, but there are more fundamental scientific issues also. While psychologists have traditionally examined individuals in an attempt to assess performance and the nature of behavior, the last 50 years has produced overwhelming evidence that there is another factor of far greater importance: the environment. In other words, you can use sociometrics to examine individual characteristics, but unless you relate them to environmental factors (social norms, for instance) that information is meaningless.”

Dr. Walton uses the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) of 1971 as an example. The experiment investigated the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners. A group of 24 male students became mock prisoners in the basement of the school’s psychology building. They were subjected to harassment and psychological torture at the hands of guards. Many of the “prisoners” passively accepted the harassment. Those individuals who tried to intervene were verbally attacked by the other prisoners who were directed to do so by the guards. Ultimately the experiment was stopped after 6 days.

“Ever since the Stanford Prison experiments evidence suggests that we can only learn about individual behaviors (including performance) by taking a social-psychological perspective and also examine the (far greater factor) values and norms within which people operate,” continues Dr. Walton.  “In an organizational setting individual creativity, for example, may be influenced much more by factors such as whether the organizational norm supports individualist values (rather than collectivist), or whether creativity and innovation is supported, than whether the individual has a history of high creative activity. There is no reason to believe that the same is not true for other characteristics and behaviors.”

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