Constant interruptions are the bane of life in today’s open-plan offices. And a Swedish-Swiss industrial engineering company, ABB, says it has a solution: It has given some of its employees a kind of automated “do not disturb” sign: custom-designed traffic lights for their desks.
The FlowLight system evaluates how busy someone is by measuring their combined mouse and keyboard activity against that person’s baseline average. When activity is in the top 9% of their typical range, the light turns red, letting colleagues know that it’s the wrong time to amble over with a funny anecdote or any question that’s not absolutely burning. Non-emergencies can wait until the light is green.
According to ABB’s internal research, the quirky appliances work. In a trial run involving 449 employees in 12 countries, those who used the lights said they had to deal with 46% fewer interruptions.
But is this really the answer that frustrated open-plan office staff are looking for? If your desk is outfitted with an automated stoplight that’s monitoring your movements, it’s not only your colleagues who can see how busy you are—your manager has eyes, too. It’s easy to imagine this turning into an Orwellian nightmare: men and women planted at their desks, frantically typing and scrolling to keep their lights red, red, always red.
ABB says it configured the traffic lights to limit how long they could be red, so that they couldn’t be used to measure productivity, but what’s to prevent another company from doing just that?
Then again, maybe the FlowLight is just the latest and most blatant manifestation of a reality we’re already living with: The office productivity tools we’ve been told are meant to facilitate collaboration, improve communications, or encourage collegiality are constantly watching and measuring us.
Take Slack. The instant messaging and office chat app has swept across media, tech, and other service companies with the virility of a goat-yoga video since its launch in 2014. It already has more than 5 million daily active users around the word, and has found a home at IBM, NBC, Adobe, and hundreds of smaller companies (including Quartz). Slack is marketed as a tool to maximize your time-management potential and allow everyone to stay in contact, but with its mobile app it has become a 24-hour addiction for many office workers.
It would probably surprise many Slackers that Slack is an acronym, and its full name would make Orwell proud: Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge. As Jacob Silverman observed in the Baffler, that’s a rather ominous title hiding behind the company’s “chill” front and quippy morning greetings. He theorizes that Slack, which started life as a video game before the company realized its communication tool was where the money was, is going to shape-shift once more:
We are, I think, on the verge of another Slack pivot, if it hasn’t happened quietly already. As its watchful bots continue to circle, archiving and analyzing, retrieving and praising, the company will be forced to acknowledge that the true value of Slack lies not in its ability to enable productivity, but rather to measure it.
He imagines a day when Slack conversations will be subjected to sentiment analysis and managers will offer employees granular, daily feedback in place of yearly reviews. And if Slack doesn’t go there, maybe one of its competitors—Microsoft Teams, Facebook Workplace, Google Allo, and lesser-known names—will.
In the age of big data, a measure-everything mindset is emerging. Julia Ticona, a sociologist and researcher with the Data and Society think tank in New York, says that the same types of apps that track and keep tabs on restaurant workers or delivery people 24/7 are now migrating to white-collar jobs.
But while service and manufacturing industry workers are more used to overt productivity measurements, such systems are often sold to office workers as opportunities to maximize their own productivity, she explains. “For lower wage folks, it’s about scheduling and hours,” says Ticona. “For the white collar folks, it’s about being the ‘best you.’”
That’s the reasoning behind the pitch for employee badges with microphones and location sensors that can listen and watch office staff, made by the Boston-based company Humanyze. The “people analytics” company, which was launched by MIT grads, says the smart sociometric badges allow an organization to log how often people speak to each other and in which parts of the office conversations happen most naturally. Although they don’t record what is being said, they do measure voice volume levels and analyze tone. Humanyze’s clients can apply that data to rethink office space, maximize productivity, and keep employees satisfied and connected. All of the data is anonymized and individual conversations are not shared with managers. (Bank of America and Deloitte have already given the technology a whirl.)
Ticona doesn’t dispute that this data could have real value. Perhaps it will empower marginalized groups, like women or minorities, for instance, by supplying the data to prove how often a particular group is spoken over, or how rarely women speak up in meetings. “The effects of this stuff are really complicated,” she says. “It’s often easy to be like, “Oh my God, this is employer control over employee. This is messed up! But there are times when the intentions are good.”
It’s harder to see the value to employees in products like WorkSmart, which monitors employee keystrokes to make sure everyone is on task. Or of GPS systems that keep updating the mothership about where an employee’s device is, long past business hours. Depending on where you live, your employer may not even need to tell you that you’re being tracked via a wearable or phone, a right most government agencies don’t have.
Personally, I’m not looking forward to the day when an algorithm tells me, or my manager, what my mood is on a given day, or which personality type I am. But “sentiment analysis” is already used by companies looking for hidden truths about employee morale. Likewise, until I start a career as a professional athlete, I’d rather not wear biometric sensors that track my heart or perspiration rates—but such devices have been tested on traders responding to on-the-job stress.
Even if your office hasn’t yet deployed any of these more overt forms of surveillance, it may already have the framework in place to flick a switch and begin inspecting your minute-to-minute choices, through software you use throughout every day.
In more and more offices, Slack and similar apps have become the conduit for all communication: people use the app to talk to each other individually or in groups, via text or video chat, to share files and links. In Slack anyone can create a channel, and the division between strictly work-related conversation and water-cooler chat seems to have disappeared, with one channel devoted to an intricate work project and the next for sharing employees’ dog photos. Slack also allows members to plug in all manner of software, including calendars, Google Docs, or project management apps.
According to the company, the all-encompassing Slack system saves time: in its survey of more than 1,600 system administrators, Slack found their app made companies 32% more productive (the weighted average). That’s the premise that’s made Slack a $3.8 billion business with over 800 employees.
But people are starting to ask, at what cost? Instead of a tool, Slack is starting to feel like a relentless obligation, and Slackers have a love-hate relationship with their master. They’ve begun to worry about the awkward social dynamics Slack enables by encouraging gossip and cliques, and about the app’s undeniable addictiveness. Slack on mobile takes the whole office and all its conversations home, late into the night, and throughout your weekend, if you let it—which many feel pressured to do.
This fraught relationship may soon become even more complicated, and Jacob Silverman’s dystopian vision in the Baffler may not be so far off. Already Slack bots can process information from a user’s conversations, shared links, and third-party apps to propose channels that might be of interest for someone to join. A new feature allows members to search Slack for the best in-house source on any given topic, based on what they’ve said in Slack.
More smart features are to be rolled out in the coming months. Ultimately, it hopes to create an “intelligence layer” that would act like a whip-smart personal assistant to each user. In an interview on the company blog, the director of Slack’s in-house AI studio, Search Learning Intelligence, Noah Weiss said:
When I think of the concept of this intelligent layer, I think a lot about a CEO’s or senior executive’s amazing Chief of Staff. The point of that person’s job isn’t to do all these mundane tasks, like calendar scheduling, it’s actually to help the executive make sure that they’re spending their time on whatever is most important and to have a really good pulse on what that person feels is urgent and interesting.
Already, an employer can access all Slack public channels, and can pay extra for the Plus plan to gain access to employees’ direct messages, private conversations, and archived messages, if it can prove it has the legal right to do so.
Slack acknowledged last year that it already has an eye on measuring and monitoring productivity, not just facilitating it. Stewart Butterfield, the company’s CEO and founder, told an audience at a South By Southwest talk that Slack is working on a “manager bot” that will use artificial intelligence to automatically track progress on projects and remind employees about work that’s due. “No word yet on whether that means a Slack-based version of meeting assistant x.ai or something that could pass the Turing test, become self-aware, and enslave the human race,” Quartz tech reporter Mike Murphy joked at the time.
That manager bot doesn’t yet exist, according to Slack—Butterfield was merely referring generally to artificial intelligence tools in his SXSW keynote, said a company spokesperson. But Slack has begun to implement AI tools developed by Search Learning Intelligence, and Weiss recently described to Business Insider how the chat app can learn about its users—their work habits, interests, even favorite TV shows—with a granularity that Facebook or Google would envy.
With that kind of a pan-optical perch, who needs traffic lights?