MIT spinout startup Humanyze supplies biometric badges and accompanying software to companies wanting to track their staff.

The five-year-old company is starting to make inroads into the UK market. Techworld spoke to the CEO Ben Waber about what organisations can learn about their staff using biometric tracking, and how to deal with the privacy concerns raised.

© Humanyze
© Humanyze

How does it work?

Humanyze badges look like a normal employee ID badge but are equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) and near field communication (NFC) sensors, bluetooth for proximity sensing, infrared to detect face to face interaction, an accelerometer and two microphones.

The badges 'talk' to beacons set up around the office to detect proximity. The microphones, which seem inescapably creepy, "don't record what you say but [the microphones perform] voice processing," Waber explained. "So how much you talk, do you dominate conversations? Tone, volume, speed."

Waber says all the data is processed in real time and nothing is recorded. It is processed in the cloud and distributed to the relevant employee and managers get an aggregated, anonymised view of their teams.

The company combines this physical world data with data from work systems (primarily Microsoft) to pull calendar and email usage data (not content, it says).

By combining digital communications data with data from the physical world managers can use Humanyze dashboards to get a "holistic view of what goes on in the company", Waber says. Managers can start to see how they spread their time between people, how different teams talk to one another, if meetings are inclusive enough and how cohesive groups are.

Waber says that managers can use this aggregated data to see "what top performers do that others don't? You can test how you manage the business, A/B test different [office] layouts before implementing them." Waber says the overall aim is "quantifying the value of employees having coffee together in the age of of working from home."

Employees can also access their own personal dashboards to see "what you do, how you compare to the team average. If you want a different role you can look at what they do. You can start to see how you compare, so benchmarking within your company," he said.

Privacy concerns

Concerns over workplace monitoring and biometrics came to a head last year when Daily Telegraph journalists objected to their desk time being monitored.

The main issue here was around consent. According to Buzzfeed the staff were not asked for consent to be monitored at their desk and only discovered what the devices were after "googling the brand name and discovered they were wireless motion detectors produced by a company called OccupEye that monitor whether individuals are using their desks".

In the UK, Citizens Advice states: "Your employer can legally monitor your use of the phone, internet, email or fax in the workplace if: the monitoring relates to the business; the equipment being monitored is provided partly or wholly for work; and your employer has made all reasonable efforts to inform you that your communications will be monitored."

However, "some employers monitor their workers without informing them that this is happening, for example, by use of hidden cameras or audio devices. This is very rarely legal."

Waber says that he thinks these sorts of laws and regulations are out of step with this next phase of physical, biometric tracking in the workplace though. "You need government regulation on this to ensure that people opt in for this stuff," he said.

Waber is naturally keen to avoid this kind of reaction to his technology. So, when an organisation contracts Humanyze they will come into the office to brief staff on how the system works and what is, and isn't, recorded. Everyone signs a disclaimer and there is no obligation to take part.

When asked if not taking part could be damaging from a career perspective, in other words, that by even asking employees to take part you are applying implicit pressure, Waber didn't miss a beat: "If you tried to force people you would have a negative impact on the workforce that counteracts any positive effect the tech has," he said.

Furthermore, employees that don't want to participate can wear a "fake" badge, however he says that generally Humanyze gets 90 percent participation, "so we are generally quite good at communicating the value of this and make sure we do it the right way," he said. Transparency will be key to adoption of this sort of technology.

UK customers

Waber is unhappy with the tabloid (and broadsheet) press coverage Humanyze has been getting in the UK so far, where they tend to exaggerate the privacy concerns. For example, a piece by The Mirror about the company leads with the entirely misleading headline: "Your boss could track you day AND night using new smart technology."

Waber laughed off the headlines, saying that being able to track employees day and night would not only be wrong on a moral level -- "from a privacy perspective it is the wrong thing to do," he said -- but on a business level too.

As he said, trust is vital to Humanyze when it comes to attracting new customers. "Any potential value of that information would be dwarfed by the legitimate negative reaction that people would have," he explained.

In terms of the UK market Waber admits that uptake has been slower than in the US and Japan but he is "seeing uptake in healthcare and financial services". However he wouldn't be pushed on which companies are using its services.