Technologies

How Companies Are Using Technology to Make Workers 'Happy' in Their Crappy Jobs

Call center jobs are about to get a lot "friendlier," and maybe a lot more creepy too.

Mark Mann

Mark Mann

Image: Shutterstock

If there was ever a real-life workplace dystopia, it is the modern call center. Employees spend their shifts interrupting strangers with surveys and sales pitches, or fielding calls from irate customers who've just spent fruitless hours troubleshooting on Google and are now ready to yell at the first real human they encounter. As each tense or abusive conversation comes to an end, the employee must immediately launch into the next one, because every second at work is quantified and analyzed. Even though they talk to people all day long, call center employees often report feeling lonely and isolated in their tiny cubicles.

With a job this bad, there are only two attractive options: call in sick, or quit. And that's what many people do. Annual turnover rates fall between 30-to-45 percent. Absenteeism is also high. Since recruiting, hiring, and training a call center employee can cost companies in the thousands per worker, their bosses want to lessen the misery, if only to raise the bottom line.

But even though call centers have a strong financial incentive to improve the workplace, they aren't necessarily successful. Taco Tuesdays, anyone?

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Instead of handing out gift cards and hanging employee-of-the-month plaques on the wall, a new breed of companies wants to make workers more productive (and ideally happier) by managing their social interactions with each other. These companies are harnessing every conceivable data stream and deploying the results to shape how employees relate to each other. For call center agents, the future is friendlier, and maybe a lot more creepy.

Ron Davis is CEO of Tenacity, a "retention-as-a-service" company based in Seattle that proposes to use "social physics" to make people actually squeeze some enjoyment out of their call center jobs—and ideally not to quit so much. The techniques for making people happier are well established, he pointed out: We know that mindfulness and deep breathing, physical exercise, and connecting with peers all contribute to a sense of well-being. "The problem is nobody does that stuff," he said. Through the emerging field of "social physics," Tenacity subtly manipulates workers to build more well-being into their days.

A digital badge packs a Bluetooth sensor that checks proximity to other people

Social physics applies Big Data to the social sciences. The discipline's godfather is Alex "Sandy" Pentland, who runs the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs. Pentland has said, "In the area of psychology and management, we're back in the days of alchemy… There aren't any scientific bones there."

Now that qualitative research is becoming increasingly quantitative, Pentland argues, social physicists are able to apply hard science to pernicious problems, like how to create sustained behavior change among a company's employees.

One motivation hack derived from social physics is rewarding others—not you—for your successes, Davis told me. Under Tenacity, employees choose two buddies to be their accountability partners. Instead of rewarding workers directly for desired behaviors, such as performing a meditation exercise or doing some moderate physical activity, the program rewards those partners. "It turns that's seven times more effective," Davis explained. What we won't do to make ourselves happy, we will do to please our friends.

Participants perform "quests" together, such as taking a new employee out for drinks, and snapping a silly selfie

Social physics also suggests that people are more productive when they get to spend unstructured time with each other. Since call centers can be such lonely places, Tenacity offers to foster friendships outside of work. Participants perform "quests" together, such as taking a new employee out for drinks, and snapping a silly selfie. Such contrived outings will sound more like a torment than an adventure to many, but then again, maybe they seem more fun when considered against the hellscape backdrop of a call center job.

"We can see what's wrong with the social network, and start tailoring our quests to address those problems," Davis said. "We create the right offline relationships with the right people, via technology." If this takes off, perhaps soon we can all have our workplace relationships customized to suit the needs of our employers.

Humanyze, another company seeking to commercialize the principles of social physics, accesses those offline relationships using a smart ID badge. "Face-to-face is much more predictive of the things we care about than digital data," said Ben Waber, the company's CEO, speaking over the phone from Boston, where the company is based.

Humanyze's digital badge is worn around the neck on a lanyard and packs a Bluetooth sensor that checks proximity to other people, an infrared sensor that shows who you're facing, an accelerometer for your activity level, and a microphone that performs voice analysis. The microphone doesn't record what people are saying, Waber told me, but rather it tracks the percentage of time you spend talking and analyzes your volume and tone of voice.

Making people happy in their crappy jobs may help employers avoid other workplace improvements, like paying more

Basically, employees get to wear the Panopticon on their chests all the time. It's like your all-knowing boss just arrived from the future and he wants you to feel better.

From a privacy perspective, smart badges are pretty unnerving. But Waber assured me that Humanyze doesn't release individual data to employers. Employees get their own data on a dashboard that lets them see exactly what percentage of time they spent interacting with coworkers, alongside other disorientingly intimate metrics.

The feedback that companies receive is aggregated, and therefore more generalized: it could show how much more often men talk in meetings than women, or how frequently executives dominate conversations, for example.

Humanyze is meant to be used for systemic change, like altering the office layout to encourage socializing, or adjusting the break schedule so people can hang out together.

Data-enabled social manipulation may sound implausible, but no one is more skeptical than the companies who have to pay for the programs. "We have to be disgustingly profitable to get their attention," said Davis. "And we are!" Tenacity offers examples of companies that saw 10-to-25 percent reductions in attrition and absenteeism, and Humanyze describes case studies where companies obtained 30-to-1330 times their return on investment through increased productivity and other benefits.

Ultimately, making people happy in their crappy jobs may help employers avoid other workplace improvements, such as actually paying people more money. "In order to hire people you have to have wages that are competitive, so I don't think that's true," Davis argued. I think it's genuinely positive stuff. The people who use it say that it's making their lives better."

Maybe beggars can't be choosers, but that doesn't mean they can't be friends.