Dec 292014

Michael Lewis’ 2003 book “Moneyball”—and the 2011 film adaptation—detailed how the Oakland Athletics used analytics, primarily derived from players’ on-base percentages, to assemble a competitive team despite financial constraints.

What if you could bring that type of analytics to the workplace? Now MIT spinout Sociometric Solutions is developing a system it calls “moneyball for business,” which uses sensor identification badges and analytics tools to track behavioral data on employees, providing insights that can increase productivity.

“‘Moneyball’ is putting numbers on behavior and using that data to build a baseball team. But what if I could say, ‘Here’s how you need to talk to customers, here’s how people need to collaborate with each other, and here are the things that lead to outcomes such as turnover, sales, and ,'” says Ben Waber PhD ’11, co-founder and president of Sociometric. “Individuals can use that data to boost performance, and a company can use that to help set up an environment where everybody’s going to succeed.”

Sociometric’s system—based on years of MIT research—consists of employee identification badges with built-in Bluetooth sensors that track location and which way someone’s facing. Other sensors show when employees lean in—signaling, for instance, engagement in a conversation—and accelerometers can track their speed (sensing bursts of lethargy and vigor). A built-in microphone records how often, fast, and loud individuals talk, as well as tone of voice (but not actual conversation). Increased speed and higher voice tones, for example, are strong indicators of high .

Readers placed around an office collect the data and push it to the cloud. (Individuals have access to their personal data via a Web dashboard or smartphone, but companies are only given anonymous, aggregated results of patterns and trends in behavior.) By combining this information with employee-performance data from surveys, interviews, and objective performance metrics, Sociometric can pinpoint areas where management can build more productive offices—in ways as surprising as providing larger lunch tables or moving coffee stations to increase interaction.

In one of its earliest studies, with a Bank of America call center, for instance, Sociometric tracked co-workers for three months. They predicted that allowing certain employees to take breaks together—to let off steam or share tips about customer service—would improve productivity. Sure enough, when the bank instituted the changes, Sociometric measured a 15 to 20 percent bump in productivity, a 19 percent drop in stress levels, and decreased turnover, from 40 to 12 percent.

All things considered, Waber says, these and other solutions produce a 20 percent rise, on average, in productivity and employee satisfaction, and a similar decrease in turnover.

More than 20 retail, sales, and consulting firms have used Sociometric’s system. Additionally, more than 60 research organizations across the globe are using the system on management, social psychology, medicine, computer science, and physical therapy, among other things.

Sociometric’s MIT co-founders, and co-inventors of its technology, include Alexander “Sandy” Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Science, who serves as scientific advisor; Daniel Olguin Olguin SM ’07, PhD ’11, who is chief operating officer; and Taemie Kim PhD ’11, who is chief scientist.

Natural transition for a company

Sociometric traces its origins to 2007, when students in Pentland’s Human Dynamics Group, including Waber, were approached to use behavioral analytics for a management study.

Peter Gloor, a researcher in the Center for Collective Intelligence, was using surveys of employees at a German bank, where the marketing division was split into four teams located across 10 rooms on two floors. The bank wanted to know how this physical layout affected productivity and job satisfaction.

Waber, Pentland, and other researchers developed and deployed 22 prototypes of Sociometric badges at the bank for a month, registering when two wearers were talking to one another and for how long.

Accumulating more than 2,000 hours of data—and comparing that data with survey results—they predicted, with 60 percent accuracy, that close-knit groups of workers who spoke frequently with one another were more satisfied and got more work done more efficiently. They also found evidence of communication overload, where high volumes of email—due to lack of face-to-face interaction—were causing some employees difficulty in concentrating, and decreasing their job satisfaction.

Armed with these results, the bank rearranged its layout to increase the proximity of the close-knit employees, and dropped from four teams to three to encourage stronger interaction.

Seeing potential, Waber, Pentland, and others started trialing the system with the Media Lab’s various corporate sponsors. From these early experiences—and with some advice from MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service—the startup refined the system and learned how to pitch it to potential customers and deploy it efficiently. As word spread, companies started offering to pay.

“We thought, ‘If we could make an impact doing something so simple [as measuring face-to-face interactions], imagine what we could do with more sophisticated metrics,'” Waber says.

From there, Sociometric built out its analytics tools primarily through dozens of research collaborations. A study with Cornell University in 2013, for instance, allowed the startup to prove that it could accurately predict high levels of cortisol in someone’s saliva—an indicator of high stress—based on their tone of voice. “That suddenly became a metric we could use,” Waber says.

Longer lunch tables, better outcomes

Over the years, Sociometric has had some surprising findings. Waber points to his firm’s work with a major online travel company. While looking at the employees’ lunchtime interactions, they discovered one of the most predictive measures of good performance was the number of people an employee ate with—the more, the merrier.

But they saw that in the cafeteria, certain people only sat with three other people (at four-seat tables), while others sat with 11 people (at 12-seat tables). Those who sat at larger tables were 36 percent more productive during the week. When the company initiated layoffs during the study, the employees who sat at larger tables also had 30 percent lower stress levels than those who sat at smaller tables.

The idea is that these employees, Waber says, had been able to accumulate larger networks, knew what others were working on, and were more likely to reach out to specific people with questions and concerns. Surprisingly, after this finding went public, some technology firms began installing larger cafeteria tables, Waber says.

“It’s crazy that something as trivial as physical space, as the size of the lunch table, could affect productivity,” Waber says. “The CEO obviously wasn’t thinking about that, but those are the biggest drivers of how people communicate with one another.”

Waber says many of Sociometric’s results point to a need for more social interaction in the workplace. In sales, for instance, communication with colleagues has proven more predictive of sales outcomes than the ability to talk with customers, Waber says.

“If someone figures out a really good way to pitch to customers, you talk to them and learn how to make that pitch, which makes things more efficient,” he says. “Even if you’re competing on performance metrics, if you know each other well enough, you’ll share. That’s exactly what we see.”

Some major companies such as Google and Facebook, Waber says, are already promoting socializing by, for instance, building campuses, where all workers come to collaborate. “But the next step for Sociometric is to take everyone else to that same level of collaboration,” he says.

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Dec 292014

wiwblog-06Productivity is a key metric in any business situation.  When you and your employees are productive you:

  • Cut payroll costs by getting more done in less time
  • Make more money by increasing profit margins
  • Enthuse customers by staying on track, on time, and on budget
  • Have more time for expansion, growth, and internal revisions

And much more!

But improving productivity can be a hard thing to do (especially if you’re coming into an already existing work dynamic).  Employees—people in general—are resistant to change and you’ll be slapped with the old “if it ain’t broke” adage more times than you’d like.  But to be the best manager you can be you have to actively increase productivity.

Here are some helpful tips:

Keep Them Focused

Focus is a key component of productivity.  If your employees are constantly distracted by intra-office politics, their personal lives, or even clingy and annoying customers, it’s hard for them to stay on task and get their job done.  Therefore, it’s essential that you do what you can to eliminate any unnecessary distractions without becoming a draconian manager that nobody likes.

Start small by eliminating or better managing personal phone calls.  Build up with intra-office policies about gossip and “smack talk.”  Analyze the time spent on project and (especially) the time spent on non-productive behaviors in order to weed the latter out.  You may even want to cut ties with customers and clients (even long-time ones) when their value is overshadowed by the burden they place on your employees.

Additionally, you should constantly be on the lookout for solutions (such as upgraded software) that will allow your employees to get more done in the same amount of time.  By giving your workers the tools they need to get the job done, you’re not only improving effectiveness, you’re building their own sense of self-esteem and job satisfaction.

Keep Them Loyal

Employees are people. Their personal lives probably carry more weight than their dedication to work. However, you should expect a certain level of loyalty from every employee.  While they’re on the clock, they should be working for you—not simply sucking up the hours to earn a paycheck.

Employee loyalty isn’t something you can mandate in a memo or write into the company’s employee handbook.  You have to earn that loyalty.  How do you do that?

You can increase employee loyalty in a number of ways:

1)    Become a Better Manager—by increasing the confidence your employees have in your ability to lead, you’ll not only become a solid role model but will create a sense that you’re working for them.  Encourage feedback (and act upon it), take advantage of ongoing education, analyze the effect of every action, and use this input to make yourself better at what you do.

2)    Improve Company Culture—your employees won’t give their all if they feel like their job is simply a job.  Worse yet, they won’t even bother engaging fully if they feel that their workplace is hostile or the least bit offensive.  That’s why it’s important that you use your influence to create the best environment possible.  Minimize the nay-sayers, give employees the tools and resources they need to do their jobs, nip problems in the bud before they can fester.

3)    Maintain Neutrality—your employees shouldn’t see you as an equal—no matter how much you want to be their friend.  You should always be in charge but that doesn’t mean you have to be arrogant.  By giving everyone the same respect and attention you can maintain neutrality and avoid creating a situation where employees feel like they’re outsiders.

And if necessary, cull the herd to get rid of the bad employees.

Keep Them Happy

A happy employee is a productive employee.  It’s simple as that.  And there are tons of ways to keep your best employees happy at work and beyond.

  • Promote a solid work/life balance and streamlining their work experience
  • Listen and respond to feedback about the company, their day-to-day tasks, and any interpersonal conflicts
  • Create a company culture through the use of team building, tradition, and mutual respect
  • Reward outstanding behaviors and remember special occasions
  • Give them an outlet to vent their frustrations (anonymously if necessary)
  • Give them the responsibility they crave and the guidance they need
  • Showcase and celebrate personal success—it goes so far beyond employee of the month.
  • Schedule them according to their needs without sacrificing yours

Your employee’s happiness really does rest in your hands.  While there are some individuals out there who aren’t a good fit for your business, most of the people on your payroll actually want to be there—take advantage of that.

Be The Boss They Want to Work For

The number one way you can increase employee productivity is to increase your own.  By modeling excellent behavior, managing your expectations, and leveraging the emotional intelligence you either inherently possess or work hard to cultivate you can be the manager your employees want to work for rather than just their boss.

If you can achieve that, the hard work is already done.  The rest is just housekeeping.

Embrace Tools & Tech

Mobile technology solutions like When I Work have streamlined the workplace.  If you’re not taking full advantage of this new wave of simplistic technology, you’re wasting valuable time and resources.  By reinvesting in your business’s infrastructure, you’ll reap rewards in no time.  Not to mention your employees will come away with a better impression if your company keeps up with trends instead of stagnating in the past.  

Revisit Internal Operations

It may be your internal operations that are holding you back.  Are you still relying on processes that were devised a decade ago?  Are your employees still inventorying by hand?  Do you still require paper documentation (in triplicate)?  Do you use filing cabinets?  Are most of your sales people cold calling?  Take a real hard look at how your business runs on a daily basis and try to spot the processes that really slow you down.


Don’t be afraid to tweak things.  Even if your new ideas don’t work, trial and error is an excellent way to grow, improve, and be more productive.  You can’t simply expect your employees to work harder.  That only gets you so far (and can lead to hard feelings, burnout, and bad situations).  You have to take an active approach toward improving efficiency and effectiveness if you ever want to really improve your productivity.

Read Between the Lines

One of the most effective skills you can develop as a manager is reading between the lines of the feedback your employees give you.  First, they should feel free to speak candidly with you or through an anonymous medium such as an online forum.  Next, you have to actively listen to that feedback.  Lastly, see if you can spot the underlying problem behind the feedback.  For instance, if an employee is complaining about the new production goals you’ve set forth, the real issue may not be the goals but the manner in which you expect them to be met.

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