This cutting edge technology from MIT reminds me of something I learned in business school more than thirty years ago.
Professor Ashenhurst told us the story of how an “efficiency expert” had reduced productivity. The expert did a classic time and motion study of some programmers. He noticed that the programmers not only spent a significant amount of time walking to and from the punchcard reader to submit their programs but that they “wasted” large amounts of time talking to each other along the way and around the card reader.
The efficiency expert calculated that eliminating this lost time would more than pay for purchasing a teletype for each programmer, so they could enter their code from their desks instead of wandering to the punchcard reader. The new equipment was ordered and installed.
Productivity plummeted. A brief investigation uncovered the problem. You probably have already guessed what went wrong. The engineers around the punchcard reader had not been engaged in idle banter. They were exchanging tips and techniques to get better at their jobs. The conversations, it turns out, were not a problem. What looked like mere socializing was actually problem solving.
The famous MIT Media Lab has developed a compact device, pictured above, to track and quantify these all-important employee interactions. This “sociometric badge” or sociometer, in conjunction with a Bluetooth cell phone, tracks who talks with whom and for how long. The badges were used, for example, to accurately predict the winners of a business plan competition by measuring who had the most social interactions at a cocktail party the evening before the presentations. In case you had any doubt, the people with more interactions won.
The more successful people are more energetic. They talk more, but they also listen more. They spend more face-to-face time with others. They pick up cues from others, draw people out, and get them to be more outgoing. It’s not just what they project that makes them charismatic; it’s what they elicit.
Another study, at a bank’s telephone call center, showed that operators who spent their breaks speaking to coworkers not only got more work done but experienced less workplace stress.
Informally talking out problems and solutions, it seemed, produced better results than following the employee handbook or obeying managers’ e-mailed instructions.
Better work, more work, and better health. What more could an employer ask for?