How real-time feedback will change our work habits

27 February 2015 -


Live-data gadgetry advanced by the fitness industry is coming to the world of management. And better information means better fulfilment of SMART objectives

Will Dean

My flat sits atop a hill. That makes for pleasant views of the local area, but for a pretty grim walk home after 10 hours in the office. Normally I stagger off the Tube and straight on to a waiting bus, despite the 15-minute walk being a much better option for someone who has been sat down all day. With unlimited bus travel included on my weekly travelcard, there’s no financial incentive to persuade me to walk, either.

But, for the past month, I’ve been wearing an ugly see-through bit of plastic around my wrist and, as a result, have been purposefully missing the bus and walking home. The device – Nike’s FuelBand – measures your movements, the calories you’ve burned and your footsteps. Nothing new there, but what’s been making me opt for the walk, rather than catching the W3 bus, is that the gadget gives you live updates of how much activity you’ve completed that day and sets you a daily target of “fuel points” to help you hit a basic level of fitness.

Power of the loop

It sounds like a gimmick, but once you get started, and on a streak of hitting your daily goal, seeing yourself fall short in real time is genuinely demoralising. So much so that a walk in the rain becomes a much better idea than a packed bus. Extrapolate that across daily life and you may well find yourself a lot fitter.

This little bit of exercise-industry digitalism may not offer an obvious hint as to how to increase productivity either among your staff or in your own daily routine, yet it could. The same instantaneous feedback that encouraged me to ditch the bus could work on anything from controlling idle web browsing, to saving you money on the cost of heating your office, to meeting your organisation's SMART objectives (ie, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely).

It’s all part of how technology-powered instant feedback loops help us to change our behaviour. Almost always for the better.

Have you noticed those digital speed signs that – instead of saying “20mph” – use a radar to show your actual speed? Unlike speed cameras, bumps and other anti-speeding methods, these signs (with no law-enforcement threats attached) have been proven to reduce speeding by an average of 14% as drivers check their speed in real time. Hence their rapid rollout.

Wired magazine’s Thomas Goetz wrote perhaps the definitive introduction to the power of the feedback loop in 2011. As well as pointing out the power of these radar signs, Goetz looked at the work of Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, whose research suggested that by giving individuals clear goals and the means to follow their progress towards them made it more likely that they will achieve them.

You can see the end point of that thinking in my wristband, which not only flashed up the points I’d earned that day but also synced with my iPhone to give me more details. Now, take that thinking to the workplace.

There are now dozens of apps, devices and websites that use the power of feedback to improve your economy and performance. The key, depending on your field and the scale of your operations, is finding out which ones can improve your business.

Constant reminders

Take budgets, for instance. In 2011, the US psychologist Roy Baumeister was working on the (wonderful) book Willpower with the New York Times’s John Tierney. The pair conducted an experiment. They wired Tierney, a self-confessed spendthrift, up to an MRI scanner and wafted a copy of his latest Visa bill in front of him. Movement was detected in Tierney’s insular cortex when he saw his $2,000-plus unpaid balance. Now, a reaction of disgust at his spending may not be too surprising, but the prescribed medication might be an account at (not to be confused with the British credit card company MINT) is a piece of personal finance software (sadly not yet available in the UK) that – once you’ve given it your financial details – monitors where your money is going, knows if you’re spending more than you earn and will email if you spend too much in the pub or on clothes in a particular month. preys on human self-awareness (we behave differently when being filmed, or in front of a mirror, or being zapped by a speed radar). So if you’re being reminded, nudged and told that you’re overspending, you won’t have to wait for an accounts department to tell you – you’ll get that feedback in real time.

It’s a consumer device, but one whose lessons could easily be expanded to corporate accounting. It might not berate staff members for poor investments or overspends on casual staff, but it can give them up-to-the-second reminders of where their budgets are at.

The same theories work for productivity, too. If you know how much time you’re wasting, you’re more likely to discipline yourself. A program such as RescueTime can give employees breakdowns of how much time was spent on certain websites.

And while a computer-generated email at 5pm revealing that you spent 97 minutes on Facebook today might not provide quite as much motivation for an employee to get their act together than a word from the boss, it certainly helps. Why waste your time monitoring Dave’s internet use when you can have a website do it for you?

Technology can’t guarantee efficiency in the workplace, but as tools that work on feedback loop principles become more common, expect it to improve productivity without souring the workplace atmosphere. Or at least that’s what you can say when handing out the calorie-counting wristbands.

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