People are going crazy for self measurement. Fitbits and FuelBands track our activities and sleep. Mobile apps have gone far beyond counting calories to support mood tracking, time spent meditating, and the progression of chronic disease. There are bathroom scales that feature Bluetooth so they can tell your phone how you're doing with your diet. (It won't be long before your phone reports back to your refrigerator.)
But while the "quantified-self" movement is a multibillion-dollar industry, the idea of a quantified workplace lags far behind. To be fair, there are some companies that have benefited greatly from workplace analytics. Call centers saw tremendous productivity improvements as they rolled out better measurement tools in the '90s. UPS reduced its fuel consumption by more than a million gallons a year by optimizing driver routes with its "right turn only" rule.
On the other hand, workplace analytics can be creepy. European supermarket chain Tesco has employees wear electronic armbands so managers can track how fast they walk around the warehouse, but workers complain their bathroom breaks are measured too. Other companies are tracking their employees' non-work activities, including eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. The federal government has built a system that monitors the work-related and personal activities of more than 5 million of its employees to flag those who might be a security risk.
Stories like these raise questions about how far employers can go to keep tabs on their workforce. The state of California even passed a law making it illegal for companies to implant microchips in their employees after some companies began evaluating that technology as a replacement for issuing keys.
But creep factor aside, employers need to take this seriously. Lost productivity in the workplace is a huge problem. A 2013 Gallup survey found that 70 percent of American workers are either "disengaged" or "actively disengaged." My company, Enkata, has conducted research that found even a small number of actively disengaged workers can have an outsized impact on overall productivity.
And the problem is getting worse. There are more and more distractions in the office, from smartphone games to online cat videos. Telecommuters have even more things that pull them away from their desk, and some have a hard time staying focused. When announcing her company's ban on telecommuting, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer cited VPN usage data that showed many remote employees weren't even logged in for most of the day. Other large employers including Best Buy and Hewlett Packard are following suit in scaling back telecommuting.
But the quantified-self movement is about making positive changes, and the quantified workplace needs to be positive as well. No employee wants to work for Big Brother, and no good manager wants to be Big Brother. Employers need to find the right balance to maintain effective oversight without killing their culture and driving away their best employees. This can be done, but it isn't simple.
First, the program needs to be about improving, not policing. Think personal trainer, not overbearing parent. Some companies offer spyware-type products that secretly record everything that happens on an employee's computer but do nothing to help anyone get better at their jobs. Worse yet, they reveal a distrust of the workers that will alienate employees.
Second, employees need to be involved. They should know what information their company is capturing, as well as when the company is taking it and why. They should have the same access to the data as their managers, and they should understand how the company will use the information. If they believe the program is in place to help them, they'll be more welcoming.
Third, employers should be very clear that they won't "sweat the small stuff." Even hardworking people check Facebook once in a while. People's productivity has peaks and valleys, and everyone has days when they have a hard time getting things done. Improvements come from identifying and changing problematic patterns of behavior, not from triggering alarms every time someone does something out of policy.
Finally, companies should follow through on the process of using the information to actually help people. Too often, useful information is ignored because managers don't have time to share it with employees. In the worst-case scenario, information is captured for months, but the first time the employee sees it is in a negative performance review.
As computers and technology become more pervasive, people are seeing them as more intrusive. But it's also the case that computers and technology have given people unprecedented freedom in the workplace. They can stay connected with the outside world, blend their work life with their personal life, and even work completely out of sight of their managers and co-workers. To help managers in the new workplace, you must give them the oversight abilities and tools they need to help employees perform at their best.