A new biometric employee badge may be rolled out across workplaces in America that will allow employers to listen in on conversations and track movements of their employees.
The ‘Big Brother badge’ will track a person’s movements, listening in to conversations and monitoring how stressed an employee is in order to help improve productivity in the workplace.
A Boston company has taken technology developed at MIT and turned it into special badges that hang around your neck on a lanyard. Each has two microphones doing real-time voice analysis, and each comes with sensors that follow where you are in the office, with motion detectors to record how much you move. The beacons tracking your movements are omitted from bathroom locations, to give you some privacy.
“Within three or four years, every single ID badge is going to have these sensors,” predicted Ben Waber, chief executive of Humanyze, a Boston-based employee analytics company. “We are only scratching the surface right now.”
Those concerned about their privacy might be alarmed by the arrival of such badges. But Humanyze says it doesn’t record the content of what people say, just how they say it. And the boss doesn’t get to look at individuals’ personal data. It is also up to the employee to decide whether they want to participate.
“Those are things we hammer home,” Waber said. “If you don’t give people choice, if you don’t aggregate instead of showing individual data, any benefit would be dwarfed by the negative reaction people will have of you coming in with this very sophisticated sensor.”
He and three fellow scientists, two of whom are MIT graduates and one from Finland, call their technology “people analytics.” They developed it as part of their doctoral thesis.
A Bloomberg report this week explained how the groundwork for the new company was laid. MIT finance professor Andrew Lo in 2014 rigged a conference room with monitors “where 57 stock and bond traders lent their bodies to science,” all in the name of using biometrics to identify the characterists that make good employees.
Lo discovered that top-performing traders are “emotional athletes. Their bodies swiftly respond to stressful situations and relax when calm returns, leaving them primed for the next challenge,” according to Bloomberg.
Losers “were hounded by their mistakes and remained emotionally charged, as measured by their heart rate and other markers such as cortisol levels, even after the volatility subsided. Veteran traders had more controlled responses, suggesting that training and experience count.”
“Imagine if all your traders were required to wear wristwatches that monitor their physiology, and you had a dashboard that tells you in real time who is freaking out,” Lo told Bloomberg.
JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have had discussions with tech companies about systems that monitor worker emotions to boost performance and compliance, according to executives at the banks who spoke to Bloomberg.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Waber said one financial services client plans to use the badges to increase productivity. The basic idea is to locate teams that need to communicate with each other closer together based on who talks to whom. By the same token, individuals who do not need to collaborate as much can be farther away or even have their own individual office.
“It’s using sensors to get information about what’s going on in the real world.”
Humanyze is coming out with a next-generation badge in October that will be slightly larger than that credit card in your pocket.
“There are very basic questions I can ask of any business that they cannot answer,” Waber said. “Such as how much does the executive team talk to the engineering team? If you are a retailer, how much should you talk to a customer in a store?”
Humanyze has already sold thousands of these gizmos for Fortune 2000 companies around the world since it was formed five years ago. In addition to Boston, Humanyze has an office in Palo Alto, Calif., and employs 20.
Waber said the company is careful not to divulge personal data to the employer, preferring instead to stick with broad analytics. Employees get to see their own data, but managers do not get to identify the employee with the specific data.
“It’s exactly like a Fitbit for your career,” Waber said.
“Imagine you are a salesperson at a high-end retailer and you get paid on commission. Now I want to know, how should I talk to a customer so that I sell more. Or, on a day when I sell a lot of products, what did I do?”
Waber said Humanyze doesn’t make money on the badges but instead makes money on the data it produces.
Waber cited the following real example:
“A bank has hundreds of retail locations. Some perform really well. Some don’t perform as well. The executives want to understand what the high-performing branches do differently. In turns out that in one company, the high-performing branches were very cohesive. The people who work in that branch talk a lot to each other.
“The people in the lowest performing branches almost never talk to each other. The company used Humanyze technology to identify that issue and also change how they pay people and how they organize the branches’ management process. Top line sales grew by 11 percent.”
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