Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: So you have a lot of fun at work

For some us work’s a ball. We gossip, we socialize, we treat our colleagues as if they’re our second family.

But at times we feel guilty. We wonder whether we are actually getting enough done.

Our employers probably wonder too.

They would doubtless like to wire us up to machines that tell then who we have been talking to and for how long and then dock our wages accordingly.

The machines have just been invented. They’re called a “wearable sociometric badges”. They document when we move close to a colleague wearing another one of the badges, when talk to that colleague, and the kind of things we say...

Alex Pentland from the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been trying them out.

He says they “extract speech features in real time to capture nonlinguistic social signals such as interest and excitement, the amount of influence each person has on another in a social interaction, and unconscious back-and-forth interjections, while ignoring the words themselves in order to assuage privacy concerns”.

Amazingly he and his team at the MIT have found entire workplaces happy to subject themselves to the machines for weeks at a time in order to allow him to examine what real people do when they are put together in a workplace for hours each day.

He has discovered that it is quite different to what they do with email. The people who emailed a lot were not those who talked a lot. And guess what? Big emailers are unproductive.

But big talkers?

The team wired up groups workers at an IT company and discovered that some talked an awful lot, especially to colleagues who weren’t relevant to the task at hand.

But they excelled.

In one group the worker that chatted the most was 60 per cent more productive than the worker who chatted the least.

But a lot depended on when the talking took place. Chatting between tasks boosted productivity. Chatting in the middle of tasks harmed it.

The findings don’t automatically mean that you should talk more at work. The researchers weren’t able to test for causality.

It might be that the productive workers just happen to be those who talk rather than that talking creating productivity.

But it probably does mean that even if you spend an absurd amount of time socializing and enjoying the company of your colleagues, you shouldn’t feel guilty. So long as you’re getting things done.


Wu, Lynn, Waber, Benjamin N., Aral, Sinan, Brynjolfsson, Erik and Pentland, Alex, "Mining Face-to-Face Interaction Networks using Sociometric Badges: Predicting Productivity in an IT Configuration Task" (May 7, 2008).