Wearable Sensors Watch Workers

Sensors that track social behavior highlight the benefits of face-to-face interaction.

Office workers who make time to chat face to face with colleagues may be far more productive than those who rely on e-mail, the phone, or Facebook, suggests a study carried out by researchers at MIT and New York University.

Social sense: This sensor was worn by employees at a call center in Rhode Island to record activity and social interaction. MIT and New York University researchers correlated sensor data with productivity.

The researchers outfitted workers in a Rhode Island call center with a wearable sensor pack that records details of social interactions. They discovered that those employees who had in-person conversations with coworkers throughout the day also tended to be more productive.

The results aren’t yet published, but they support research published last December by the same team. This study showed that employees at an IT company who completed tasks within a tight-knit group that communicated face to face were about 30 percent more productive than those who did not communicate in a face-to-face network.

“The big idea is that what you do on your coffee break and over lunch really matters for productivity,” says Sandy Pentland, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, who led the study. “Face-to-face networks matter, and the implications are huge.”

Many managers probably suspect a link between personal communication and productivity, says Pentland. Conventional wisdom suggests that face-to-face conversations are a useful way to create and maintain strong social networks, which could help workers solve complex customer problems or complete more calls at the center, he says.

However, some managers are slow to implement policies that foster this sort of communication because the connection has been difficult to prove with hard data, says Pentland. Usually, he says, workplace socializing is recorded using participant surveys, which tend to be filled with errors, since it can be difficult to remember the details of social interactions.

“There’s all this knowledge that you see in anthropology and sociology [studies] that doesn’t make it into management because it’s sort of soft data,” says Pentland. “But now we can tell which sort of folk wisdom is true … We can put some numbers on the table.”

Pentland’s study used a sociometer, a device about the size of a deck of cards, which participants wear around their necks as they would an identification badge. Each sociometer contains an accelerometer to measure their movement; a microphone that picks up their speech characteristics, such as intonation and cadence; a Bluetooth radio to detect other people wearing sociometers nearby; and an infrared sensor that can detect face-to-face interactions. Worn all day, the sociometers log workers’ activity and conversations.

The data collected by each sociometer can, for instance, reveal how central a person is to a social network and how cohesive the network is overall. A more cohesive network is one in which all people talk to each other, thereby forming a closed loop. This may be an important measure of workplace social dynamics: workers in the most cohesive networks were about 30 percent more productive than those who weren’t in such networks, according to the call-center study.

The researchers chose a call center for their research because productivity is constantly monitored and recorded–the number of calls and other tasks completed, and the time taken for each of them throughout the day.

“The thing that’s really innovative is bringing social-network data together with productivity and performance data,” says Eric Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Sloan Business School at MIT, who worked on the project.

The findings come at a time when telecommuting is booming, thanks to digital communication tools such as e-mail, instant messaging, and teleconferencing. Cameron Anderson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that organizations could use such findings to weigh the costs and benefits of telecommuting, or to schedule break times for workers. “More interaction will likely bolster information transfer across individuals and departments,” he says. “Studies have shown this is extremely important to organizational success.”

In the case of the call center, Pentland notes that workers’ break times were staggered, making it difficult for many of them to interact in person. “The people who managed to have more cohesive support groups were in atypical situations,” he says. The next phase of the study is to see if productivity improves when workers are given opportunities for more direct social interaction.

“The underlying theme here is that humans are social beings,” says Pentland, who will present details of the work at the Where 2.0 conference in San Jose, CA, next week. “Technology pushes us toward the abstract, and away from richer face-to-face communication.” Without direct communication, he says, many physical signals, such as body language and facial expression, are lost.

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