Emerging technologies like Quantified Self are allowing employers to gauge and improve employee wellbeing.
By John Havens
By now you might have likely heard of the Quantified Self movement. Using apps or wearable technologies like Fitbit, people are measuring the “Little Data” of their lives, whether they’re looking at a dashboard about their exercise or sleep to discover patterns leading to insights that will optimize their health.
This trend of studying personal health data has already moved into the workplace. Employees tracking their heart rate, for example, may start to notice spikes in data during work hours that could signal negative health trends. Some incidents may be based on their own behaviors (diet, sleep) while others may be brought on by stress in the workplace.
In the same way that social media has permeated the workplace, devices likes these measuring personal data will do the same. Employees won’t want to remove devices related to their health at work as they spend so much time in the office. And soon they’ll begin to correlate how their workplace is directly affecting their data, happiness and overall wellbeing at work. They’ll be able to track the times, locations and situations directly correlating to positive or negative experiences in the workplace.
The Wealth of Wellbeing
Companies planning ahead for these trends can prepare for the new legal issues surrounding employee health data while also reaping the benefits that healthier and more engaged employees provide.
For instance, the Nuffield Health report, Corporate Investment in Wellbeing – the Emerging Strategic Imperative, notes the finding, “FTSE 100 companies that report on health and wellbeing outperform those that don’t by 10%.” Likewise, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace study finds that the 30 million engaged employees in the U.S. (versus the 70 million unengaged ones), “come up with most of the innovative ideas, create most of a company’s new customers, and have the most entrepreneurial energy.”
But can you quantify happiness? It’s one thing to measure physical data, but how do you classify emotions? What can you track within an organization that can yield workable data to improve engagement or wellbeing versus simply increasing momentary mood?
Privacy Issues and Transparency Around Data
The answer lies in a field of science known as affective computing, where devices recognize the physical cues of a user and correlate their responses with an emotion or data relating to their identity.
For instance, the study of keystroke dynamics has become a way companies can authenticate users based on the patterns of how they type. Companies like BehavioSec in Sweden are using these types of technologies to eliminate the need for passwords, identifying employees by their biometric fingerprint. However, the force with which you hit a key, type a text or swipe at your mobile screen also correlates to emotion or stress. This means employers could start to measure the engagement of their staff based on these data, without employees even knowing they were being tracked.
Obvious issues of privacy come into play with this type of tracking, along with the fact that when employees know this type of tracking is taking place it can increase stress about their job performance, skewing overall results. Wherever possible, the best use of this type of data collection should be done in an open atmosphere where employees understand the business goals of these practices. Personal Data Policies should also be put into place so HR departments can clearly detail how any information voluntarily provided by an employee will be used for their benefit, and how.
Private in Public
One workplace utilizing Little Data tracking is Citizen, a Portland based mobile technology company. Featured in the WIRED article, "What If Your Boss Tracked Your Sleep, Diet and Exercise," the company is utilizing a quantified self mentality by uploading exercise, nutrition and sleep data from employees to a central server. The goal, as reported by WIRED reporter Klint Finley, is to “determine whether healthy employees are actually happier and more productive. The ultimate aim is to explicitly show employees how they can improve their work through better personal habits.”
Utilizing a series of activity trackers including Fitbit (for health), RescueTime (a time tracking application) and Happiily, an employee mood tracking service, participation in the program is voluntary. The developers of the program are also explicit about the nature of what data is tracked and for what purposes. A video demonstrating the benefits of their health and wellness program, called Citizen Hercules, shows how activities are measured and connected through data, and how employees examine and change behavior based on results.
In the future, as Finley reports, “its designers hope the system can (also) provide all sorts of insight into employee behavior, such as whether listening to particular types of music increases productivity, or whether employees who have entered a new relationship are less productive than those who are single.”
Citizen is a forward-thinking company, relatively small and also highly entrepreneurial in nature. While it may be easy to dismiss their work as only befitting startups versus larger organizations, their efforts are blazing a trail companies of any size would be wise to emulate. Social media have blended people’s private and public lives in the workplace. The personal data era is upon us, and intimate details about our lives and health affecting us at work are becoming more commonly shared.
From Productivity to Purpose
We’re in a strange era when it comes to tracking behavior. Recent incidents with the NSA make us rightfully want to protect our private data, yet most of us share our personal information in a cavalier manner online or in social networks. However, companies who work with their employees to discuss how they can collect health and wellbeing data with the consent and knowledge of staff can avoid issues of distrust and utilize emerging technologies to optimize people’s engagement and happiness at work. Soon employees and managers will work together to track which activities relate to a person’s productivity guided by their sense of purpose that most deeply motivates their behavior.