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What if your boss tracked your every move?


(MoneyWatch) Would you agree to wear a tracking device that told your boss not only where you were every second of the day, but also how loudly you were speaking, to whom you were speaking and how many people were in the group?

My gut instinct is to say not a chance. I'm the same person who, when the head of HR at one company I worked at decided that we had to code every phone call we made or received (topic, department, project, etc), flat out refused. I wouldn't do it. Some of my coworkers joined me in the protest as we declared that we were adults who should be judged on our performance, not on an analysis of our phone calls. I suppose there was enough rebellion in this that even though my group was responsible for HR data analysis, none of that data ever appeared on my desk. If some other group did the analysis, I never heard about it.

But after reading a Wall Street Journal article this week about how data from tracking devices allowed companies to build a more productive workforce, I'm not so sure I should be objecting. Cubist Pharmaceuticals learned that their employees were more productive when they took breaks together and ate lunch together, which prompted them to renovate their cafeteria and improve their menu. Using similar technology, Bank of America changed their call center policies to allow more interactions between coworkers. Call centers have notoriously bad reputations, so I can get behind anything that makes a call center employee's day more pleasant.

So is data the answer to everything? Maybe, and maybe not. One commenter to the WSJ article writes, "Does anyone know how to really manage anymore? Seems like managers are clueless unless they have their 'data'." Another reader added that "Now you have to hire a team just to track what other employees are doing. Is this the new efficiency?"

Good points. However, good managers do use data. Sometimes it's just internalized data and nothing is written in a spreadsheet, but it's still data. For instance, I know that I do my most productive work in the morning. If I have a critical task, I'll tackle it as soon as I sit down at my computer. If I wait until the afternoon, I won't be as focused.

How do I know this? Data. I've paid attention to how my brain works, how sharp my skills are and how much I can accomplish. Even though it wasn't determined by a fancy tracking device, don't think it wasn't repeated data points that brought this to my attention.

A good manager can often do this intuitively. When something isn't working, she makes adjustments. When something is working, she adjusts other areas to match it. Companies do this all the time when they talk about "best practices."

So perhaps what this data-driven approach does is helps people for whom managing isn't intuitive manage better. A talented manager would have walked into Cubist Pharma's old, dingy cafeteria and said, "If you want your employees to feel valued and want them to stay on campus in order to increase collaboration and productivity, you should make this cafeteria more appealing." But that's a huge expenditure and people couldn't see it. Data offered proof that prompted those with the checkbook to sign off. 

And better management is not only good for the company, but also better for the employees. So maybe I wouldn't openly rebel if my boss wanted me to wear a tracking device for a few weeks in order to figure out the best way to manage me and my coworkers. I would, however, be sure to be super-duper productive every time I ate a brownie (and I would encourage my coworkers to do the same). That way, we could get company provided afternoon snacks. Or would the data sensors be too smart to be fooled?

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