What if Your Boss Tracked Your Sleep, Diet, and Exercise?

Inside most companies, the typical health and wellness program includes regular blood pressure checks, a list of fresh foods for the office fridge, and some sort of exercise guru who shows up every so often to tell people they should work out more. If you’re lucky, you might even get some couponsdesigned to encourage healthier eating — and cut company insurance costs.

But at Citizen — a Portland, Oregon company that designs mobile technology — things are a little different. Employees at the company are now uploading data on how much they exercise, what they eat, and how much they sleep to a central server, as part of an effort to determine whether healthy employees are actually happier and more productive. The ultimate aim is to explicitly show employees how they can improve their work through better personal habits.

Kickstarted by Wired’s Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, the quantified self movement aims to glean more insight into our general well-being through statistics. Typically, this is a personal undertaking, but the same ideas are now moving into the business world. Chris Dancy, a director in the office of the chief technology officer at BMC Software, tracks his life in an effort to prove his worth to employers, and now Citizen is taking things even further.

C3PO taps into a service calls Health Graph — which collects data from personal activity trackers such as Fitbit and RunKeeper — but it also collects data from various software tools used inside the company, including the project management system TeamWork PM, the time tracking application RescueTime, the audio system Sonos, and the employee mood tracking service Happiily. In the future, its designers hope the system can provide all sorts of insight into employee behavior, such as whether listening to particular types of music increases productivity, or whether employees who have entered a new relationship are less productive than those who are single. Simpson says they even plan to post employee health stats to Citizen’s website.

Simpson and other developers built the system through Citizen’s Google-like “15% Time” program, which encourages employees to spend a certain amount of time on pet projects. It was originally just a way of satisfying their own curiosity.

The trouble is that it’s kinda creepy.

Sce Pike, Simon Vansintjan and Quinn Simpson are guinea pigs in Citizen’s ambitious — and creepy — plan to track how its employees live and work. Photo: Klint Finley

Hardcore self-trackers like Chris Dancy are already tracking dozens, perhaps hundreds, of variables related to their bodies and environment, such as skin temperature, heart rate, and diet. Dancy also keeps a detailed record of his work, and he can correlate his activities with what music he’s been listening to or what he had for dinner the night before. But he collects and analyzes the data for his own use. His employer has no access to any of his health data. Citizen’s approach is more ambitious — and potentially more useful — but it raises privacy questions.

“Health data can be used for many different purposes, and in an age of ‘big data’ can reveal things about you that you may not even know about,” Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with Electronic Frontier Foundation, another privacy advocate. “And the laws that protect health information often only protect that information within the health care system — [meaning] doctors and those involved in medical treatment and health insurers.”

C3PO’s particular brand of health tracking may be too much of a legal headache to really catch on, but its designers also aim to track productivity independently of health data. Simon Vansintjan, a user experience designer and one of the employees working on C3PO, says that stats such as the number of tasks completed and the number of repeat clients may provide an accurate measure how much work is getting done — and how good that work is — but the company is still exploring which metrics work and which don’t.

This sort of thing is happening inside many companies. Some outfits track hundreds of variables in the quest to measure worker productivity, says Nathan West, director of analytics products at Evolv. Evolv offers a service for companies that want to track employee productivity and minimize employee turnover. It even tries to determine how employees perform under different supervisors.

Why I’m curious: I think it will be interesting if they can use the system to change the way the company operates, to better estimate how long projects will take or find new ways of reducing employee turnover.

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