Key to productivity: A good place to gossip

Intrusive tracking of office workers shows the best way to boost productivity is to encourage them to gossip

If you wanted to boost the productivity, improve the job satisfaction and add to the creativity of a department of knowledge workers while spending almost nothing – encourage them to hang out together and gossip.

Counterintuitive though it is, the clearest result of the most intrusively detailed and quantified studies on the movement and interaction of humans in their workplaces is that "the single most important thing you do at work is interact with other people," according to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Ben Waber, an MIT behavioral analytics expert and president of Boston consultancy Sociometric Solutions, which he founded with a bevy of colleagues from the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the MIT Media Lab in 2010.

Rather than evaluate the effectiveness of a department based on performance reviews, revenue or trouble reports, Sociometric Solutions uses creepily Big Brotherish, Bluetooth-networked trackers called sociometric badges, to figure out where every employee is in the office every second of every day, who they're talking to, who does most of the talking in which combinations of workers and, presumably, what they're all trying to accomplish.

Most studies of how people interact, how information is shared and passed along to different groups and the roles of individual workers rely on self-reports, surveys, the observation of outsiders or other techniques that produce subjective, un-detailed summaries of what's going on rather than actual data.

Most of Sociometric's techniques – and most of its scientific staff – came out of the lab of MIT professor and MIT Media Lab honcho Alex 'Sandy' Pentland – one of the pioneers of "computational" social science, who saw development of the Sociometric badges as a way to measure worker activity more precisely than was possible by observation or by using telephone or computer records.

Data tells a much different, often more surprising story than observation, according to Pentland, who calls the technique "reality mining." A 2010 study at a Bank of America call center showed that letting work-friends go on break together was such a productivity booster than making it easier increased the productivity of the whole group by 20 percent, reduced stress levels by the same amount and reduced turnover by more than two thirds.

Another test, at a high-end systems integrator, showed that technicians who spoke regularly to four specific colleagues were able to finish their own work 25 percent faster than those who didn't hang out with all four of the shadow gurus. Few workers identified those particular colleagues as leaders, and the amount of work they did was only average, according to a September Harvard Business Review article by Waber.

Systems of measurement that raise or lower compensation according to the productivity of each individual actually penalize the guru support team whose efforts creates a huge improvement from everyone else involved, because their individual productivity dropped when they were talking with colleagues.

It may be counter to common wisdom and even most social-science research, but "gossip improves productivity," Pentland told Forbes in 2010. "Gossip," in this case means advice, troubleshooting, the giving and taking of advice and other topics that are all core parts of the job, but which are discouraged more often than tolerated, let alone encouraged,

The relationship between gossip and productivity is so pronounced that the size of the lunch table at one Sociometric turned out to be pivotal. Workers who ate in the cafeteria at 12-seat tables with 11 other people were 36 percent more productive and 30 percent less stressed than those who sat at tables that were smaller or less crowded, Waber said in an MIT News office story posted this week. The story also compared the new analytical approaches to job performance to Sabermetrics, the innovative player analysis process described in the 2004 book "Moneyball," that helped the Oakland Athletics identify players with skills that were often overlooked but which contributed nearly as much to a win as the showier skills of highly paid stars.

Data from Sociometric studies and those of other behavior analysts makes it pretty clear that underappreciated shadow gurus are as real in business as in baseball and may have an even greater impact.

There's just no way to find out who most of them are. Ordinary performance metrics are barely able to identify the overall benefit, let alone the individual contributors.

Even if it was possible to identify the contributor and contribution, though, it would be hard to hire for those skills. How effective would a job ad be that asked for a developer skilled in Ruby, Perl, C++ and has the ability to function as one quarter of a gossip-based, productivity enhancing, quarto-corporeal unstructured-information-distribution professional.

"We do not know how to measure the way we work," Waber told the Lift France conference in June.

So far neither the data nor the structured analyses exist to identify the skills or the people who have them, though Sociometrics and other companies are working on that.

In the meantime, Waber focuses a few clear results and on evangelizing other factors that are underappreciated even among behavioral analysts – the boost to creativity that can be attributed to walking, for example.

Waber and Sociometric are offering clients advice on oddly appropriate ways to promote the value of wasting time, however, by offering advice on the design of office buildings and lunch rooms that encourage "collision" and conversation and might make it easier for magic to be created even if no one can predict exactly how or by whom.

Regardless, it's likely to be a long time before either workers or mangers begin to value gossip enough to get past the idea that productivity comes to those who quit talking and get back to work.

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