How “people analytics” is transforming human resources

Technology lets companies track and analyze employee behaviour like never before, but beware the creep factor

Humanyze badge

A smart badge made by Humanyze can detect how much an employee talks—and how much they listen. (Humanyze)

Last fall, consulting firm Deloitte redesigned its office in St. John’s, Nfld., to boost collaboration among employees. To test whether the new layout was actually achieving its goal, Deloitte teamed up with a Boston-based firm called Humanyze to outfit each employee with a smart badge—a rather conspicuous device resembling a smartphone and worn on a lanyard—that tracked their movements and how often they spoke to one another. The devices essentially gave the analytics team at Deloitte a heat map of office activity.

Deloitte had done the same thing before the renovation, and by comparing the data from the two periods, it found that while some of the common areas were popular, others weren’t being used as frequently as hoped. The treadmills in the gym employees had lobbied for were hardly seeing any action, either. While Deloitte can’t do much in that office at this point, Silvia Gonzalez-Zamora, the company’s analytics and digital convergence leader, says the findings will inform other redesigns happening across Canada. “Now we have more information, and we can reallocate the budget to satisfy the real preferences,” she says.

Deloitte’s experiment with Humanyze, a spinoff from the MIT Media Lab, is part of an emerging field called people analytics. By collecting data and analyzing employee activities and behaviour, companies can glean new insights to help them operate more efficiently. That’s hardly a revolutionary idea, but a few converging trends—the abundance of data and wearable technology—are allowing businesses to examine employee behaviour with more precision than ever.

Retention is one of the first areas in which companies have deployed people analytics. Credit Suisse Group looks at a variety of data points, including performance reviews and a manager’s team size, to determine which workers are likely to jump ship. That allows upper management to intervene before someone quits, instead of having to conduct an exit interview to find out what the problems are.

Productivity is another area of focus. Seattle-based VoloMetrix analyzes employees’ emails and calendars to determine how they are spending their time. Microsoft recently acquired VoloMetrix and deployed the software at its Canadian headquarters.

Humanyze’s approach, however, seems a bit more intrusive. The company’s smart badge is equipped with a microphone to monitor the frequency of employee conversations and how long people spend talking versus listening. It does not record the actual content of conversations; it’s collecting metadata to craft two separate report cards—one for employees and one for their managers. “What we provide is a technology that allows them more visibility in their lives,” says Jeremy Doyle, Humanyze’s vice-president. “When they have more information, they’re more able to take action.”

Still, staff has to consent to being monitored. David Zweig, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management, says many will push back if they feel their privacy is compromised. “There has to be trust,” he says.

Proponents suggest the emerging field of people analytics is just the next natural step in the evolution of our workplaces. Companies already collect reams of data on their employees: Swipe cards, for example, record their movement throughout an office. Doyle argues Humanyze’s approach results in more reliable data than, say, focus groups or employee surveys, where information is self-reported. Even Zweig concedes the next generation of workers could readily buy into the concept, since they’re accustomed to giving out their information. “We’re collecting data because we can,” he says, adding that more organizations will jump on the trend.

Indeed, Gonzalez-Zamora at Deloitte says there are plenty of opportunities to collect more information. She foresees companies using devices to measure an employee’s heartbeat and body temperature, for example, to better understand how employees manage stress. For Doyle, gathering more intelligence on employees amounts to a competitive advantage: “The companies that don’t do it will fall behind the companies that do.”