What today’s fitness technology means for tomorrow’s office

How the IoT could help organizations create a better employee experience.

Contributing Author: Claire Niech


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At 5:37 a.m., Nina’s alarm softly begins to buzz and glow. It has calculated her recovery time based on her previous day’s workout and monitored her sleep tracker to identify the best point in her REM cycle to wake her up. After rising, she grabs a healthy breakfast and her PrepPad or Drop connected kitchen scale records the fat, protein, calories, and carbohydrates in her meal.

For athletes like Nina, this kind of technology-enabled tracking is now standard. When Nina hits the gym for her daily routine, she warms up on a treadmill equipped with sensors to help gauge when she is striking at her optimal force. As she practices technique and form, a ‘smart’ surface records the location and duration of each move. Her training regimen is personalized based on this data; ‘instead of working off a generalized idea of what an athlete needs to be successful, [data analysis] has identified the specific abilities that a player requires to excel in a given sport.’ (From Faster, Higher, Stronger, by Mark McClusky)

Professional athletes today increasingly rely on Internet-connected devices and sensors to boost performance. Yet, the potential of such devices — commonly called the “Internet of Things” — extends beyond sports and fitness; as “weekend warriors” begin to bring these technologies mainstream, it is not hard to imagine that similar devices may soon also help us better understand other complex personal pursuits, such as creativity and productivity at work. As Laszlo Bock, who runs Google’s People Operations, notes: “We all have our opinions and case studies, but there is precious little scientific certainty around how to build great work environments, cultivate high-performing teams, maximize productivity, or enhance happiness.”

Today, many organizations tackle these questions with an industrial-organizational approach, diagnosing the issues most relevant to their workforce using tools such as annual surveys and benchmarking. But today’s approach seldom offers insight on “what works” — ways to track, teach, or reinforce new behaviors, or to see if specific initiatives are achieving the desired effect. Solutions to complex challenges like productivity or satisfaction often vary by organization, and demand better, real-time measurement and testing to enable experimentation.

By weaving together our physical and digital environments, sensors could help organizations analyze how factors like mood, focus, social engagement, or movement contribute to the employee experience — and even help replicate or enhance this experience. Consider how this new technology could impact how companies do work, assess outcomes, and enable employees to thrive.

Work smarter

“A lot of people today are just getting told to do stuff — [we have] a very task-driven culture that produces noise around meetings, calendars, emails, and status reports, rather than saying, ‘here’s what we are trying to achieve, any ideas on how to contribute and add value?’” observes Kris Duggan, founder of Betterworks, a startup focused on enterprise goal-setting. Shifting mindsets may require a different set of tools to enable individual contribution. Organizations might replace the status reports and meetings that monitor progress today with tools and information that help employees achieve more — just as embedded sensors at the gym help athletes shape more effective workout plans. UPS has embraced this idea, using sensors to monitor how delivery drivers stack packages to identify the most efficient approach, or to provide feedback to individual drivers on how often they engage in risky driving behaviors, such as backing up or turning left. Where feedback today is often limited to infrequent formal reviews, the information generated by workplace devices could provide employees consistent insight on how to contribute more effectively. It even transforms the role of managers from critic to consultant — like an athletic coach, working hand-in-hand to address issues and achieve goals.

The same principle is just as applicable to creative and collaborative pursuits: more information about how we work can drive new ways of working. Consider the “balance table” piloted at Salesforce.com: the underlit table has LEDs that glow to reflect how much each person in a meeting has spoken, making participants more aware that they may be dominating the conversation and less inclined toward long soliloquies. People have more opportunity to contribute, and connected devices can help achieve the same result through other avenues, too. In the next evolution of crowdsourcing platforms, for example, a beacon by the coffeemaker could share questions for teammates to think about while their coffee brews — driving collaboration at a natural time, without forcing a meeting onto the schedule.

Assess outcomes

Beyond individual improvement, connected devices could also provide better insight than traditional methods into how to design the workplace. “In traditional social science, you ask people questions using surveys. Typically, this just gets you responses that are socially acceptable but do not really reflect reality. Real­ity mining is about what you actually do,” notes Sandy Pentland, author of Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science. Emerging microsurvey or “pulsing” platforms reflect a similar shift in workforce assessment. As sensors offer even better measurement capabilities for these experiments, they have the potential to spawn a new approach — “employee sensing” — that includes rapid-cycle versus annual insights, passive versus active inputs, and custom experiments versus leading practices.

Deloitte’s practice in Canada, for example, recently experimented with how connected devices might provide insight into redesigning a work environment. Working with Pentland’s team from MIT Media Lab, the St. John’s office deployed sociometric badges with three basic sensors: location, motion, and sound pitch. Based on the aggregate data from teams that opted-in, Deloitte measured activity in both the old and new workspace to track the impact of the open-concept redesign as well as understand how the new space was being used. Measuring sound pitch and motion data, researchers could gauge energy levels, while tracking the overlap in badges’ location and sound data helped track social interaction. These new performance indicators suggested both that social interaction doubled in the new spaces, and that the space also fostered interactions outside typical functional groups. But the badges also uncovered an anomaly: rooms with treadmill desks showed little movement, despite being a top request from employees. The researchers followed up with employees, and learned that they valued the privacy these rooms offered — a scarce commodity in the new open floorplan — and were using the rooms for conversations and calls, uncovering the need for more enclosed space in future office designs.

Empower employees

Just like today’s step-counters improve fitness outcomes by creating awareness, measuring workplace behaviors could help employees understand when they are more likely to be creative or productive. Empowered by this data, employees can make individual adjustments — even for personal wellbeing or other “nonwork” factors that correlate with engagement. French gaming company Ubisoft, for example, recently offered their employees the opportunity to monitor their own stress, and saw stress levels drop 50% during the pilot program just by increasing awareness. Where a corporate program would have been difficult to design, individuals were able to make personal changes and see what worked. As author Mark McClusky notes about athletics in his book Faster, Higher, Stronger, we treat performance “like a group project, when in fact it’s an extremely personal one.”

Organizations often suffer from the same assumptions, and have only recently shifted to place greater emphasis on the individual’s role in organizational activities: moving from “recruit” to “attract” or from “train” to “learn.” As organizations look to improve engagement, it too will have to become less prescriptive, and the data from connected devices could enable individuals to better calibrate their own satisfaction and productivity. With greater insight on how dimensions such as stress, diet, or exercise impact their work, employees can craft precise — and likely nontraditional — daily routines. As Alexi Carli, global health and safety manager at UPS, notes, “If you want to nurture genuine engagement, it has to be less top-down and more bottom up … real employee creativity comes when you loosen the reins.”

Getting Started

For some, this vision of a technology-enabled “quantified workplace” will elicit immediate questions about privacy, and barriers to adoption are certainly more social than technical. Surprisingly, the best response to these concerns may be the outcomes from these early enterprise experiments. With the level of productivity it achieves, UPS can pay drivers some of the highest salaries in the industry. Deloitte consultants in the St. John’s office found sensors a less intrusive form of assessment than having traditional ethnographers observe and record office dynamics. And the Ubisoft employees who reduced their stress likely boosted not only productivity, but also their personal health. As organizations vie to keep top talent, they have the incentive to use these devices positively — to make work a better experience for their employees.

The sensitivity around privacy also highlights the importance of investing in incremental change, experimentation, and workforce feedback. Where mobile phones saw top-down enterprise-wide adoption, connected devices will likely be more effective in pockets, addressing demand for information on specific, pressing issues. To start, many organizations may need to identify or create this demand — measuring performance for business events critical to success, or developing a more rapid goal-setting process. Then, organizations should identify the minimum level of technology needed to measure actions, analyze information, and improve outcomes — much like Deloitte Canada chose to focus on three sensors that could fit in the badges employees already wore.

When implemented effectively, connected devices could generate new dimensions and magnitude of data, and drive new levels of employee insight and productivity — potentially doing for creative work what Frederick Taylor’s 19th century motion studies did for industrial development. Admittedly, this may seem like a big claim for today’s consumer-focused Internet of Things, where applications often seem more like novelties than solutions to real problems. But technology usually evolves far beyond the initial “killer app”: personal computers, for example, originally gained popularity as an improved typewriter, and mobile phones initially offered just voice. Similarly, fitness may be the primary function of many connected devices today, but organizations should look beyond wellness programs; in a race for talent, these devices may offer organizations the same thing they offer athletes today: a competitive edge.

Cropped image on article and category pages by John on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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