Tica Hessing: Workplace technology gets personal

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Tica Hessing from Cushman & Wakefield is an expert on some strange technology. It can detect the mood of your office based on emails and sense your emotions through wristbands. This technology is transforming our workplaces at a rapid pace and has the potential to improve our experiences at work. But if we’re not careful, it could jeopardise our privacy and wellbeing.

Following is an edited transcript of Tica’s presentation.


I think by now we can all agree that we want to create happy and healthy workplaces. But what does that actually mean? For each of us it may mean something different, for there is no “one size fits all” solution for dealing with different genders, ages and cultures.

Things we once needed qualified physicians to do can now be done with technology. Almost all of us are interested in tracking our wellbeing because we want to feel better, and feel well. But a healthy office is about more than just tracking steps.

Efforts are being made to incorporate wellbeing into the workplace with meditation, yoga, biophilia and more, but sometimes it’s hard to quantify the impact of those initiatives

Efforts are being made to incorporate wellbeing into the workplace with meditation, yoga, biophilia and more, but sometimes it’s hard to quantify the impact of those initiatives.

A new wave of technology might be the answer.

I call it emotional technology. You could view it as a Fitbit combined with mood reading, a device that ventures into emotional territory and reads emotional cues. 

As a human geographer, I believe applying social sciences to the workplace and real estate industry is a much needed perspective, especially now that technology has become ubiquitous in our lives. 

But we need to understand the implications of the technology on people. So we need to understand the good, the bad and the ugly. 

One of the technologies to measure emotions is sensitivity analysis. That’s done by analysing speech. There’s a company that has a technology that looks at chats and emails in an office, and from that can basically see where the vacancies are in the space. It’s based on who sends an email to whom, but not the content of the email. It doesn’t go into the emotional realm.

In the Netherlands there’s a company that’s gone one step further. This doesn’t look at the name or the location but the content of the emails and chat, to group and synthesise to generate a mood matrix and “attitude heat map”. Using this, it’s possible to see if there’s a mood in an office over time, if there are different moods in each team and then compare them. It could also compare how offices in Melbourne and Sydney are feeling.

“instead of analysing text and speech, you measure actual emotions and feelings down to each individual. Wristband devices exist made by a company called Feel which measure your state of being for the day via different sensors. You have a sensor for your heart rate, a skin sensor that measures the intensity of emotion through your sweat glands”

This is available now but I don’t know who their clients are. 

Or what if it was used by landlords to track the mood of the occupiers over time. Instead of landlords showing off with WELL ratings they could display the actual feelings of their tenants. 

Just to be clear, I’m not proposing this, just revealing what the technology makes feasible now.

To take it one step further, there’s now emotional sensing. So instead of analysing text and speech, you measure actual emotions and feelings down to each individual. Wristband devices exist made by a company called Feel which measure your state of being for the day via different sensors. You have a sensor for your heart rate, a skin sensor that measures the intensity of emotion through your sweat glands, and an infrared or temperature sensor.

It’s connected to a mobile device. And based on all this data, deep learning techniques are applied. Depending on what you want to achieve, it will recommend what you need to do. If you are very stressed, maybe it will advise you to do meditation.

The Feel company claims it increases employee satisfaction, reduces turnover and results in higher productivity. 

It sounds amazing – but what if your employer thinks the same. 

What if this device was compulsory? Well that’s very scary.

The next one is far-fetched, but people are working on it. It’s a chip you put in your head or it’s implanted and it makes use of electrical stimulation. There’s a lot of research around it, but whether it works or not is unclear. 

One company claims it works, but there’s a big question mark there. I think it is important for us to know that people are working on these things and investing in this sort of technology. 

We also need to think about privacy. The meaning of privacy might change over time, and differ from culture and age groups and we might have different implications for privacy and therefore different boundaries. 

It’s no surprise that privacy is a hot topic at the moment with big tech companies wanting to measure us as much as possible so that they can play more to our attention, sell more and personalise advertisements. And we are giving more and more privacy away every time we want a certain service. 

We are dangerously playing with a fine line between privacy and convenience. 

In buildings this is important because you want to create a seamless, convenient experience, and we can do that. The better we understand someone, the closer and deeper the personalised experience. But how far should we go?

An article in The New Yorker called Disturbing Digital Coincidences talks about an incident when a person coughs twice and then tissues are advertised to them the next time they’re on Facebook.

This type of experience is happening more often. Do we want to go so far in the workplace setting as well? 

Does it go too far?

For example, you walk into an elevator and the building takes you to the right floor. How? 

Because your face is identified and your schedule is linked to your face. Does it go too far?  It might be a seamless experience but the actual occupiers may feel uncomfortable. 

What is acceptable for us to analyse from an emotional, informational, behavioural perspective to create seamless personalised workplace experiences?

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