By Te-Ping Chen
Some people start their day with coffee and a round of meetings. Brian Dauer kicks off his by checking which websites his colleagues have browsed.
Mr. Dauer works at Ship Sticks, a West Palm Beach, Fla., company that ships sports gear and other luggage, which last year installed software to monitor its workers. It tracks the websites employees visit minute-by-minute, and has the ability to take remote screenshots of workers' computers.
"We're not the Big Brother type," says Mr. Dauer, the director of operations. But as Ship Sticks has expanded rapidly -- growing to about 80 employees since 2011 -- the software, ActivTrak, has been invaluable in helping boost productivity, he says.
As workplaces arm themselves with new, more aggressive types of technology to monitor and understand employees, one of the busiest niches is measuring worker productivity.
Hospitals are installing sensors to detect nurses' handwashing practices and their location on the floor at all times. At AdventHealth Celebration in Florida, for example, more than 200 nurses' whereabouts are tracked to gain a better idea of how to improve productivity and workflow.
"It's just like a GPS where they can see where everyone is at any time," says Patty Jo Toor, vice president of nursing and hospital operations. She says the technology can help coach nurses and isn't used for punitive purposes.
Restaurants are using software to observe each of their waitstaff's sales in real time. Drivers who work for United Parcel Service Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. have their speed patterns tracked to boost efficiency and safety.
"It's kind of creepy," says Hans Schelke, 56 years old, who drove for Uber for four years in the San Francisco area before retiring in January. "But I was always a gentle driver," he said, adding that tracking such metrics could improve driver performance. Uber told drivers such data wouldn't affect their ratings, he says.
"Uber remains committed to investing in technology that aims to help keep riders and drivers safe," a spokeswoman says.
UPS confirmed it uses advanced analytics to sift through data in ways that help it better serve customers and drive efficiency. "Data that doesn't yield insight is just trivia," a spokesman says.
Experts say new ways to mine workplace data help companies better understand their workforce and increase productivity, safety and security. Critics are raising privacy concerns.
"You can really tap into sources of growth and improve productivity," says Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human-resources officer at Accenture. "But it can also be a minefield," if not used responsibly, she says.
Of companies based in the U.S., Europe and Canada, 22% of employers surveyed say they collect employee-movement data, 17% collect work-computer usage data, 13% collect employee fitness data and 7% keep tabs on the text in employee emails, according to a 2018 Gartner survey.
While many companies have worked to fine-tune their customer analytics, when it comes to employee data and how it should be used, the applications remain rudimentary, says Brian Kropp, chief of human-resources research for Gartner.
"We have all this technology to collect information -- reams and gobs of data -- but we're only just starting to turn that data into actionable insights," he says.
Mr. Kropp thinks that so-called "nudge" technology, using data to gauge things such as time spent on tasks and encouraging workers to take breaks, can help boost productivity. But reliable conclusions can be hard to derive from the data, he says. For example, if office sensors detect that someone isn't sitting in their desk chair, the takeaway might not be so clear: perhaps they have a standing desk, or are engaging with colleagues.
In West Palm Beach, Ship Sticks says its use of monitoring software ActivTrak paid dividends. Since installing the software, baseline productivity levels -- measured as the amount of time employees spend on websites and apps classified as "productive" -- have risen from about 60% to north of 85%.
"If someone's browsing ESPN.com for five minutes, we'll see that," Mr. Dauer says. "It tracks every little thing that happens on the computer from the time it's fired up."
The company rarely uses the tool to discipline workers, Mr. Dauer says. Instead, it lets managers spot patterns and praise employees who go above and beyond by detecting, for example, workers who take their laptops home and work after hours. The software has also helped identify bottlenecks in the workflow with Ship Sticks' customer support team and better manage their staffing, he says, including helping them identify good candidates for promotion and learn more about how workloads tend to ebb and flow during the day.
When Sagar Gupta, executive vice president at Dallas-based Biorev, a 3D-visualization company, introduced the ActivTrak monitoring software in 2016, he was fed up with low work output. The software quickly revealed employees typically worked just three hours out of each eight-hour day. Since employees became aware their activities were being tracked, he says, statistics have dramatically improved.
But some employees were offended. Seven out of about 150 quit, he says.
The firm now uses ActivTrak to track scores of employees in the U.S. and India. To encourage productivity, employees can log on to see their own productivity levels as well as that of their coworkers, he says. Early on, he says, he took screenshots of workers' activity and pasted them to their computers to show them how much time they were spending on Facebook and Twitter a day. More recently, he's set up alarms that pop up notices when workers go to sites like YouTube.
"They were embarrassed," he says. "I was like, 'Don't be embarrassed. I'm not firing you.'"
In the New Delhi office, screens display the names of the top 10 performers based on ActivTrak metrics. Knowing their statistics, he says, boosts employee efficiency.
"I did not like the concept of spying on my employees," Mr. Gupta says. "But I wanted to show employees how they're spending their day."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 19, 2019 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.