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    « Job Titles of the Future #2 - Hacker in Residence | Main | The Secret Menu »

    If Yahoo doesn't kill remote working, then Big Data will

    A little bit lost in the continuing fallout from the decisions by Yahoo to end remote working arrangements for their staff, and Best Buy's move to end ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), at its corporate headquarters was this much more interesting, (and potentially more important), report in the Wall Street Journal, 'Tracking Sensors Invade the Workplace', that hints at a data-powered future workplace where 'being physically together' is not just mandated, but is tracked, recorded, and interpreted by algorithms and leveraged by management.

    How exactly does Big Data, (which usually sounds kind of benign, or at least non-threatening), play a role in the future of telework?  Take a look at this excerpt from the WSJ piece:

    As Big Data becomes a fixture of office life, companies are turning to tracking devices to gather real-time information on how teams of employees work and interact. Sensors, worn on lanyards or placed on office furniture, record how often staffers get up from their desks, consult other teams and hold meetings.

    Businesses say the data offer otherwise hard-to-glean insights about how workers do their jobs, and are using the information to make changes large and small, ranging from the timing of coffee breaks to how work groups are composed, to spur collaboration and productivity.

    "Surveys measure a point in time—what's happening right now with my emotions. [Sensors] measure actual behavior in an objective way,"

    The next step in figuring out how people work, communicate, and interact in the workplace and with their colleagues involves wearing an always-on tracking device, (bathroom breaks optional), and harnessing all the data the device collects about who a worker talks to and for how long, how often they get up, when they hit the coffee room and vending machine, how long they stand waiting outside a conference room because the prior meeting ran long - all of this and more.  Mash up that 'experience' data with other electronic data trails (email, IM, internal collaboration tools, etc.), and boom - the data will be able to prescribe optimal amounts of employee interaction, recommend the timing and duration of breaks, send push notifications alerting you that the guy you need to connect with about the Penske account is two stalls away from you, and crucially - keep your managers informed about just what the heck you are up to all day.

    But it seems really likely to me that if these workplace tracking sensors gain more well, traction, that organizations will quickly realize that the only way to really exploit them, and the data they collect to its fullest potential, will be in a traditional workplace environment - with all employees together in a physical location and 'on-duty' at the same time. Let's face it, for a remote worker wearing a tracking sensor probably won't produce much valuable data - unless its to try to 'prove' to a suspicious manager that a remote worker is slacking off.

    The tracking sensors, if they catch on, will change the anti-telework argument from 'We need you to come in to the office so we can keep an eye on you' to 'We need you to come in to the office so we can track everything you do, say, touch, and feel all day.'

    It's a brave new world out there my friends...

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    Reader Comments (6)

    Great post as always, Steve.

    Personally, I'd like to believe that as human beings we appreciate our privacy just enough that we'd never let it get to this point, but this is a chilling thought.

    Thanks for sharing, and keep writing.



    March 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRory Trotter

    Thanks Rory - I agree that the privacy and personal dignity issues as well will end up crashing into this technology, should it take hold more deeply.

    March 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterSteve

    Whoa Nelly! So we've gone from "come in because we are not realizing the value of you working remotely" to "come in because we want to implant a microchip and track your every move to measure and maximize your every minute." Alright, that is a very extreme viewpoint but let's face it - that is the perception of those who are on the receiving end of all of this news. The issue I have with Yahoo is 2 fold:

    1) Didn't have the framework in place to manage productivity before they started letting people work remotely in the first place, thus the knee-jerk reaction.
    2) Although I truly believe that they are trying to shore-up the ship and then will reinstate some form of flexible environment, they didn't manage the execution or communication of this well at all - causing the media (and I am sure employee) backlash.

    Regardless of your viewpoint, if you want to put a homing device on my ass and make my life in your office so clinical and sterile that my blood pressure spikes and raises my health insurance rates again, then you had better frame this as a short-term experiment and talk to me about the incentives.

    My 2 cents - Enjoy!

    March 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDamon Lovett

    How would 'tracking' make employees feel? They might worry that every move they make is being scrutinized. They might feel like they're not trusted, which may make them feel less engaged and uncommitted to their company.

    Another thing they can do is ask people. If they really want to know what goes on, they can send around a less intrusive survey stating the following: In order to improve performance and enhance employee communication we'd like to ask you some questions about your typical day. And then they can list their questions.

    March 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

    @Damon - So true - thanks for expressing the down sides of these technologies!

    @Ashley - I agree, but I also think we will see some version of this in the future

    March 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterSteve

    Steve - is this a satirical take on irrational HR fears of big data or is this representative?
    If it's the former - well played. If it's the latter, that's sad in 2013.

    HR needs to stop being fearful of big data. The scenario outlined about about "tracking employees" is conceivable but a more engaged, appreciated workforce is also conceivable as well.

    Many people should stop being fearful of big data rather than educating yourself about the pros and cons of being able to harness information and extract value from it to BENEFIT employees.

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