Imagine how much better workers could do their jobs if they knew exactly how they spend their day.
Suppose they could get a breakdown of how much time they spend actually working on their computer, as opposed to surfing the Web. Suppose they could tell how much an afternoon workout boosts their productivity, or how much a stressful meeting raises their heart rate.
Thanks to a new wave of technologies called auto-analytics, they can do just that. These devices—from computer software and smartphone apps to gadgets that you wear—let users gather data about what they do at work, analyze that information and use it to do their job better. They give workers a fascinating window into the unseen, unconscious little things that can make such a big difference in their daily work lives. And by encouraging workers to start tracking their own activities—something many already are doing on their own—companies can end up with big improvements in job performance, satisfaction and possibly even well-being.
The key word here is encouragement. It is not the same as insistence. Bosses should be careful to stay out of workers' way, letting employees experiment at their own pace and find their own solutions. They should offer them plenty of privacy safeguards along the way. Too much managerial interference could make the programs seem like Big Brother and dissuade workers from signing on. There's a big difference between employees wanting to measure themselves, and bosses demanding it.
Here's a look at three areas of auto-analytics that are gaining followers in the workplace—and that merit encouragement from managers.
Tracking Screen Time
Many companies monitor what their employees are doing on the computer all day, by watching network traffic or even taking screenshots at random times. But all that oversight is designed to make sure people aren't slacking off; it doesn't help them figure out how to do their jobs better. And besides, a lot of workers probably think it's kind of creepy to have someone watching over their shoulder.
On the other hand, workers are a lot more comfortable with close scrutiny when they're the ones doing the watching.
People are signing on in droves to a new technology called knowledge workload tracking—recording how you use your computer. Software like RescueTime measures things like how long you spend on an open window, how long you're idle and how often you switch from one window to another. The software turns all those measurements into charts so you can see where you're spending your time. From there, you can set up automatic alerts to keep yourself away from distractions; you might send yourself a message if you, say, spend too much time on Twitter.
Programs like these also let you look a lot deeper into your behavior. One employee I observed saw that he got a lot more done when he switched tasks at set intervals. So he had the software remind him to change things up every 20 minutes. (He also set up an algorithm that suggested the best activity to do next.)
Another employee, a programmer, thought his online chats were eating into his work time. So he tested the theory: He looked at how long he spent chatting during certain periods, then looked at how much code he wrote during those times. But in fact, the more he talked, the more code he wrote. Gabbing online with colleagues and customers helped his work.
Managers should encourage experiments and help workers get the ball rolling. They might, for instance, find workers who got good results from the software and have them give presentations to other employees.
Again, though, companies need to use a light touch in encouraging employees: Many workers might be reluctant to track what they do if they think the company might get access to the information, or use it against them. Companies should emphasize that this type of software usually comes with lots of privacy controls. Workers can often store their data in the cloud, for instance, or locally on their machines. In some cases, they can pause tracking and delete pieces of personal data they choose. Likewise, they can also create a list of sites that they want to track by name and label all the other sites they visit as generic.
Tracking clicks and keystrokes is one thing. But another set of tools goes one step deeper and lets employees track their mental performance—and maybe even improve it.
These tools come in a variety of styles. For example, there's Lumosity, from Lumos Labs Inc., an online system that serves up games employees can play during downtime at work. The games promise to develop memory, thinking speed, attention and problem-solving abilities.
You might have to sort a batch of words into two piles depending on whether or not they follow a certain rule. Or you might be presented with two equations and have to figure if the one on the left is greater than, less than or equal to the one on the right. The software will feed you tougher challenges once you've mastered one level of difficulty.
So far, that might not sound much different than other games you might play at the office. (Minesweeper, anyone?) The difference is tracking. The games offer a scorecard of your performance and let you follow changes in performance over time, so you can see if you're getting better or backsliding. You can also choose what skills you want to improve. If you're having trouble remembering things, for instance, you might ask for memory-boosting games. So, while it may seem like just another game, it can home in on skills you're trying to sharpen for work—and improve them.
Another set of tools promises to help with a couple of age-old problems: forgetting ideas or the context in which you thought of them (or having so many of them you can't decide which will work best for the task at hand).
The method, called cognitive mapping, powers software like TheBrain, from TheBrain Technologies LP. When you get an idea related to work, you type it into the software on your desktop or mobile device. You place it near related ideas by clicking on a visual map that shows clusters of concepts grouped together by category like constellations on your screen.
Let's say your job is designing products for a household-goods company, and you get an idea about a new kind of sponge. You might click on the cluster of ideas for kitchen-cleaning products, which covers mops and paper towels as well as sponges. Then you'd click on the smaller cluster of ideas about sponges and type in your new notion. You'd also be able to attach things like links to websites, photos and meeting notes.
Later on, if you need to come up with some ideas in a particular area, you might type in a few search terms to see the thoughts you've had on the topic and the clusters of ideas and information you originally associated with those terms. Thus, you not only have a historical record of your thoughts, but also detailed insight into the context in which they were created.
As with knowledge workload tracking, employers should encourage workers to use these systems and give them freedom to experiment. But companies can probably be more active in pushing these products, since they don't have the same Big Brother associations as tracking work. So managers might buy subscriptions for influential employees who can help seed interest across the company. If they think it's warranted, managers might even buy companywide subscriptions, as they do for other types of software.
The Physical Side
There's one area where employers are already doing a lot to encourage workers to track themselves: company-sponsored wellness programs. More than two-thirds of companies around the world run wellness programs, and self-tracking tools are fast becoming a common feature.
Usually, the third-party companies that manage the programs give workers tracking devices that can synch up with an external database through a smartphone or work computer. That way, employees can crunch their own data and come up with options for improving health and job performance.
For instance, you might wear a device like Jawbone's UP wristband, which tracks sleep quantity and quality. You could then analyze your data to see how different amounts of sleep affect your work. Do you close more sales on days when you get more quality sleep? Or do you post better numbers when you sacrifice some shut-eye to entertain clients until all hours?
Another approach is tracking how your body works over the course of a workday with a tool such as the emWave2, from HeartMath LLC, which monitors your pulse. You can then look at your stats on a desktop dashboard to see, for instance, what sorts of situations cause you the most stress. The program can then recommend ways to reduce anxiety, such as breathing techniques that can help you reduce your heart rate during a big presentation.
Tracking things at this intimate level might set off all sorts of alarm bells for workers. Many might wonder if an employer could get hold of the information and use it against them. So bosses should ensure that workers have the chance to encrypt or otherwise protect their data.
This story first appeared on WSJ.com.
H. James Wilson is a senior research at Babson Executive Education.
Mr. Wilson is senior researcher at Babson Executive Education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.