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Beyond Counting Footsteps: Wearable Tech That Measures How You Work

In the current era of data analytics, companies are tracking people’s footsteps, diet, budget and browsing history. Now, some companies are starting to measure the proficiency of their workers.

Humanyze, a Boston-based company, builds devices to analyze things like how an employee talks, with whom they’re talking, body movement and location. Its goal is to give employers data that can improve the efficiency of a company.

Although Humanyze says it does not reveal individuals’ data to employers, Humanyze can show employees their own work habits and how they might be able to improve.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, for a closer look at the device and what it does.

Interview Highlights: Ben Waber

Does the device record what you say to people?

“No. What’s critical is we don’t record what people say. In real time, there is voice processing, so we’re looking at, again, how much I talk, where I spend time. And that data is always aggregated. I’m the only one who gets to see my own data. So at my company, we can see that the team average for this team looks like this for certain behaviors, but you can’t zoom in on a specific individual. And what’s interesting when it comes to the way we manage companies, traditionally what happens is the CEO reads an article about what Google does, and they say ‘Google’s a cool company. We should organize our company in exactly the same way.’ What we’re able to do with this kind of data is essentially say ‘Well, let’s actually test out the way we manage the business.’ Instead of just rolling out something across the entire company, let’s say ‘Alright, well let’s roll out this training program to half of the people, and let’s actually see from the behavioral data, in a matter of weeks, you can understand how did it quantitatively change how people work.”

On testing the device with Bank of America

“For example, in a call center, there is actually a lot of information that is captured on your performance – how long it takes you to complete calls – that data is already there. And what we’re able to do is pull that into our systems so that I can quantitatively say if you change your behavior in this way, say by 10 percent, here’s how much that outcome will change. Bank of America was able to see in their dashboard essentially that if people’s groups got more tightly knit, the more tightly knit your group got, the more cohesive your group, the quicker you completed calls. And as a consequence, they said ‘Well, let’s test out something. Let’s give them coffee breaks at the same time.’ You’re not changing anything else, but you’re splitting the group into a test and a control, and because this data’s coming in, you’re able to say ‘Well, yeah. This actually did change how people work.’ On top of that, it of course improved performance and it also really reduced stress and turnover in these groups as well.”

How do you convince someone to wear the device?

“So there’s two things. First of all, we’ve gotten over 90 percent opt-in in every single roll-out we’ve done. And we even give people, again, placebo badges that don’t collect data. So if you don’t want anyone to know you’re not participating, no one would be able to tell. For you as an individual, what you get out of it – of course, your company is essentially trying to make this a better workplace. At a purely individual level, essentially you get a Fitbit for your career. Imagine, for example, you’re a programmer, and you say ‘Well, I want to be the best programmer.’ Well, we know in your company what the best programmers do, how they actually work, and we can show you what you do and how you compare to those people.”

On the future of technology like Humanyze

“Within about four years, every single company ID badge is going to have these sensors, whether it’s ours or somebody else’s, right? We spend the majority of our waking hours at work. And so I think it makes sense for that to start to translate into our own lives as well. I think what’s really critical moving forward though, is really for us to have regulation around the industry, because right now we do things in a certain way. Right, we only do opt-in, we don’t record what you say, all these things. But legally in the U.S., it’s sort of the Wild West today. And so how do you protect the privacy of individuals while still being able to get the measurable, really powerful gains we’ve gotten, not just for companies, but for individuals as well.”

How can you be sure that companies won’t delve into the individual data?

“Our consent forms with our users are literally a legal contract between us and our users. I mean, they could sue us if we broke it. And we would, frankly, sue our customers if they tried to access individual data, and this has not happened. We have thousands of users at this point, but that’s critical for us. We feel like, one – that’s the right thing to do. But also, listen, if you go into a company and you say ‘Hey, here’s this sensor, measures a lot of stuff about you. Wear this.’ I mean, no one’s going to do it, right? And that’s why it takes, when you first rolled out at a company, it’s about a four-week roll-out process, because we have to introduce this technology and say ‘Listen, this is what we do. Here’s what we’ve done in the past. Look at this consent form. Take a look at it, read it through. In plain English, describes what we do. And you decide whether you want to do it, but if you participate, here’s what you get.’ And a lot of people really do like what we get. And our feedback is literally 100 percent positive because we are very transparent and we really, really are focused on helping our individual users really succeed in their careers.”


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Humanyze builds devices to analyze employees' work habits. (Courtesy of Humanyze)
Humanyze builds devices to analyze employees' work habits. (Courtesy of Humanyze)