Concrete Steps For Creating A Happier Office

Guests

Ben Waber, president and CEO, Sociometric Solutions
Shankar Vendantam, science correspondent, NPR

Conventional wisdom holds that happier workers are also more productive. But precisely how to boost staff morale has eluded many employers. But some researchers say there are specific ways companies can build a better workplace, from moving coffee stations to increasing diversity.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Everybody knows happier workers are more productive workers, and companies try all kinds of ways to boost morale. But most conclude that building a happier office is an art.

Now researchers from MIT and the Harvard Business conclude it's a science. The key is communication - no duh - but less on what we say than how we say it. And they argue that small, concrete steps can make a big difference, things like moving the coffee stations and lengthening the tables in the lunchroom.

We want to hear from those of you who work in offices about the physical changes that make your office a better place to work, or not. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're also going to take questions from the audience here in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Jerome, and thanks, everybody, for coming in today.

(APPLAUSE)

CONAN: Later in the program, musician and DJ Moby joins us to talk about the story he tells through his photographs. But first Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a senior researcher at the Harvard Business School, and he's with us here on the stage at the hotel Jerome. Thanks very much for coming in.

BEN WABER: Good to be here.

CONAN: So how does moving a coffee station make for a more productive workplace?

WABER: Well, so it's interesting. So if you think about who you normally talk to when you're at a coffee station, a lot of the times you're actually going to bump into people that you don't really see very often. So when you think about getting new ideas or understanding what's going on at the company, those interactions, interacting with people that you don't normally see, that aren't really in your social circles, can really help broaden your perspective and giving you really interesting insights that otherwise, just sitting at your desk, you really wouldn't come up with.

CONAN: So it shouldn't be a TALK OF THE NATION coffee station but rather a news department coffee station, where I might run into Shankar.

WABER: Exactly. Well, it's something where both of those are valuable, and I think one of the really important things is companies need to understand which types of those sort of situations - do you want to have a more cohesive group interaction, or do you want to have people branching out?

Both of those certainly have their place, but it's understanding really what - what are the levers that enable you to do that that I think is really important.

CONAN: The other example that I thought was interesting in your presentation was there was a company that was trying one of the standard ways to boost morale and build esprit de corps, and that's, you know, a beer bash and bowling and that sort of thing, none of which had much of an effect.

What did change things was lengthening the tables in the lunchroom?

WABER: So it's really interesting. So this particular company, every evening, actually every Friday evening at about 4:30 p.m., they had this event where they would give beer to all their employees. Now, first of all, you can question the wisdom of giving beer to your employees before they drive home, but I think that's a separate issue.

The idea behind that event was to try to get you to talk to different people, to try to have a - again, a much more cohesive work environment. But when we looked at that data, it actually just didn't support it. What we did is we actually looked at how people were interacting over that period of time, and you just didn't see those interactions happening.

What you did see happen was during work, during lunch time, you had a few different types of lunch tables. You had some people who were sitting at smaller lunch tables, just sort of randomly. They normally sat at lunch tables that had about four seats. And other people would sit at lunch tables that were much longer.

And what was really interesting is when you looked at who those people would talk to after lunch, I mean there's just an inherent limit on if you're sitting at a lunch table with four chairs, there's only three other people you could talk to, versus if you sit at a lunch table with more chairs, you could talk to more people.

And what you saw was that these larger lunch tables enabled you to branch out but still have this much larger cohesive group that later on in the day, if you just needed to talk to somebody, you knew that person, and so you could go out and talk to them.

CONAN: So it's where you sit in the cafeteria which justifies Meryl Streep's famous remark in a commencement speech at a university that life isn't really much like college, it's more like high school.

(LAUGHTER)

WABER: I guess that's certainly one way to put it.

CONAN: Nevertheless, you talk about data. How are you collecting data on lunch and beer busts(ph) ?

WABER: Sure, well, so I'd say normally the way that people collect data on these sort of things is there's two ways. One is by using surveys, and they'll ask you who you talked to over the last week. We're just all really bad at answering those sort of questions. Even me asking you who did you talk to yesterday, we're just - we normally just say the people we talked to yesterday are our friends, which is not accurate.

So another way people do it is they have human observers, and human observers will follow you around the office, but there's lots of issues with that. First of all, I can only follow one or two people at once, and also it just doesn't scale. So what we did...

CONAN: And lurkers can creep people out too.

(LAUGHTER)

WABER: Well, and that, as well. There's of course that effect as well. But what we ended up doing was develop a new type of name badge. So most name badges that people have in companies already actually have sensors in it. So they'll normally have a little RFID chip, in the (unintelligible) in the nametag, which actually provides information on location.

So if I put little readers around an office, I would know where you are. What we did is we added additional sensors to look at not just where you are but who are you talking to and how are you talking to them, not what you say but in real time doing voice processing, looking at how your tone of voice changes, how your volume changes, how your speaking speed changes.

And we do this - just to be clear, we don't give companies that data on the individuals. What we do, are able to do with that data, though, is we're able to say what are the patterns of communication and collaboration, and how does that relate to outcomes that we care about?

CONAN: And using that data, you've been able to predict financial progress or failure at companies.

WABER: Right, so what we've done is we go into companies, we actually have hundreds, thousands of these badges. And so what we can do is go into companies, and we have employees at the companies wear this for weeks or months at a time. And then we understand what are the relationships between different people, and how do those relationships relate to performance and job satisfaction.

And so we can actually say with that data, you know, when two employees eat lunch together, how much money does the company make.

CONAN: Really?

WABER: Yeah.

CONAN: Down to that dollar-and-cents figure?

WABER: Well, because what you can do is you can say, well - it depends on the company, but there's many companies where we were able to get data on what the - the hard numbers of an employee's performance, so how many dollars did that employee make, be it per month or per day, and then we could look at the data that our sensors collected.

CONAN: And this was not only in a quantifiable situation like a call center, where these data points are pretty easy, but less reliable situations like hospitals.

WABER: Sure, what's really interesting about this is that while it's very nice to tie the data we collect to hard numbers, we can also do it in environments where previously it's very difficult to figure out what someone's performance is. So hospitals is something where - for example, what is bedside manner? What is good bedside manner?

It's something that's often bandied about, but we don't have a really good sense for quantitatively what that means. And what we were able to do in a hospital is show that the way the medical personnel interact with a patient has a direct impact on how long it takes that patient to get better.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions. His new book, "Social Sense," is due out next year. He's a senior researcher also at the Harvard Business School. We'd like to hear from members of our audience as well, people who work in offices. What physical changes around the offices make the workplace a happier place or maybe not so happy? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with David, David on the line with us from San Francisco.

DAVID: Hi yeah, this is an interesting conversation for me. For five years, I worked for a website company in Silicon Valley, and I came from sales, so my preference was to, you know, if you're going to have an extended chat, to chat in person. But what I discovered there was that even if you are sitting right in front of a person, they prefer to communicate via instant message.

CONAN: We'd like to know the name of that company because I think Ben Waber would like to sell his stock in it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID: I don't think he'd - I don't know he'd be very successful because people - sometimes it's - you know, sometimes that's a good reason because it's sort of like a library atmosphere, where it's very quiet, and conversations might interrupt it, but people just - you know, I don't know. Sometimes they just don't want to get up out of a chair and walk over. It's quicker to do an instant message.

And also you have a transcript of what you've said. I think partly it's also cultural, people - or just behavioral. People - there are a lot of introverts. And anyway, I just thought it was interesting that I could be sitting right in front of someone and they'd rather...

CONAN: Send you a text message. One of the things that you evaluated in your research was the value of a face-to-face conversation as opposed to an email or a text message.

WABER: Exactly, so in a lot of the companies that we work with, we actually also collect data on email, on instant messaging, and we look at those patterns as well and see if those relate to outcomes. And the unfortunate fact is that it turns out that those different communication channels just don't really predict how happy you are, how successful you're going to be, as much as face-to-face does.

And that's not to say that there's no good use of email, and there's no good use of IM. What it is saying, though, is that especially if you're collaborating on very complex tasks - I mean if you think about - you know, we've worked at pharmaceutical companies. We've done work with major IT firms, with companies building aircraft. If you think about people doing those sort of things, you're talking about very complex topics.

And the time it would take for me and you to have a very complex conversation about any topic related to that, either over IM or over email, would take orders of magnitude longer than us sitting down face to face and having that conversation.

Now, as the caller mentioned, a lot of times there are cultural barriers to this, that there is a view in many companies that you're supposed to sit at your desk and do your work and not talk to anybody, and that's how you're the most effective. The numbers just don't bear that out though.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Russell, and Russell's with us from Nashville.

RUSSELL: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

RUSSELL: I had a question in regard to whether these conversations and interactions away from the desk had a detrimental impact on what employees talked about when they go back to work. Is there an increase in gossip? Is there an increase in non-work-related talk?

CONAN: Ben Waber?

WABER: So yeah, what I would say is that we didn't actually know exactly what people were talking about. There were some circumstances where we were able to collect additional data, and we did have a good sense that people were talking about work-related topics versus non-work-related topics.

For example, we knew when people were working on specific tasks, and they were essentially on the clock. So if they were talking about sports, for example, they would be losing money by having that conversation rather than talking about something work-related.

CONAN: Unless they were on the line with their bookie.

WABER: Of course, of course, maybe again, they'd do that sort of economic analysis.

(LAUGHTER)

WABER: But what I would say is that when you look at these sort of patterns, you know, obviously business-related interactions are important. But I would argue that the informal interactions are also very important. If you are having a very tough time at home, or you are very depressed, it's important for you to talk about that with other people.

By having those conversations, you're able to be more effective at work. You're able to be happier at work. And this, this very strong focus that we have and this bias we have against talking about non-work-related things at work is, I think, very detrimental to all of us.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Russell.

RUSSELL: Great, thank you.

CONAN: There was an interesting finding also that there was a company, a call center company, I think, that had staggered the coffee breaks of people to man the phones, makes sense, except when you coordinated the coffee breaks, everybody was on their coffee break together chatting away, productivity improved dramatically.

WABER: Yes, it's even in the call center, where you traditionally think of these individuals sitting on the phone and not talking to each other - even in that sort of scenario you find that this sort of interaction has very strong effects.

CONAN: We're talking about making work work. What makes for happier, more productive employees? Research shows - also shows a connection between business success and diversity. More about what that means for business and workers in just a moment.

If you work in an office, what physical changes make your office a better place to work or not? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We're talking about the science of making offices and workers happier. That's right - science. Small things can make a big difference, like moving the coffee machines, getting longer lunch tables. So does diversity.

Studies show that diverse companies are more successful and that employees think differently and come up with new ideas when they're part of diverse groups. We want to hear from those of you who work in offices about the physical changes that make your office a better place to work, or not. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll also take questions from the audience here in the ballroom at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.

Our guest is Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab. NPR's Shankar Vendantam joins us now from the stage here in Aspen; he's the author of "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives." Nice to have you with us today.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And just to begin, when we're talking about diversity, what does that cover - ages, ethnic groups, black, white, brown?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think people have defined diversity broadly, and you know, certainly, I think, ethnicity and gender may be the principal ways we think about diversity, but in recent years they have tried to try and expand the notion of what diversity includes to include everything from sexual orientation to socioeconomic diversity and most importantly, perhaps, the diversity of ideas.

So do you actually have people in the workplace who actually think differently, who have different values, who want to do different things? And so diversity really is a very broad term that, you know, in many ways is often narrowed to - is made too narrow by focusing only on race and ethnicity.

CONAN: And Shankar, as you look at this, is this a conscious, something that happens consciously or something that happens unconsciously?

VEDANTAM: Do you mean in terms of our understanding of diversity?

CONAN: No, no, in terms of when we say diverse companies are more successful.

VEDANTAM: Well, it's actually been an area of some contestation, Neal. So if you look at the sociological literature, there is certainly a correlation between companies that are very big and successful and make a lot of money, and their diversity. So companies that are very big and successful tend to be also quite diverse.

But it's not clear which way the arrow of causation runs.

CONAN: Whether successful companies are diverse or whether diverse companies are successful.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, and the research in diversity actually suggests in some ways conflicting things, which is on the one hand diversity clearly seems to have the ability to bring different people into the conversation and therefore increase creativity and sort of creative conflict, but it also has the potential to increase conflict, which is that people disagree with one another because they have different views.

You have liberals and conservatives sitting together and discussing health care or people who are old and people who are young or people who are black and white. And in many ways I think the latest research on diversity really suggests that what matters is how it's done, not so much, you know, can you check a box that says yes, I got one black person, one Latino person, one woman, one gay person.

You know, the checkbook sort of approach to diversity might not actually be as successful as saying is this a workplace that fosters learning, where people are actually willing to communicate with one another and take risks with one another. And it's those workplaces where diversity seems to work. It's not - so diversity in itself might not always work. It's how diversity gets done that seems to be the key.

CONAN: Ben Waber, it's interesting, that's - I'm not sure your research - did research directly on diversity, but you did research on the kind of employee who can make your company more productive, and it isn't necessarily the smartest guy.

WABER: Well, yeah, I think that's what's really interesting, is that this idea of diversity we so often reduce down to demographics, but what really matters in terms of company performance, as well as individual performance, is this diversity of opinion an interacting with people from different social groups that you don't normally interact with that.

And certainly that is conflated, a lot of times, with demographics, but the ability within companies to reach out and talk to these different groups and get different opinions is a lot of what makes people and companies very successful.

CONAN: Exploration I think is your codeword for it.

WABER: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a question from the audience here at the Hotel Jerome.

CINDY RHYMAN-YOST: Hi, my name is Cindy Rhyman-Yost, and now that technology allows people to kind of work or live wherever, what has the research shown about happiness and productivity for people who have the opportunity to work from home? As we're having this big conversation all week about having it all, having done both things, working from home is a really great option.

CONAN: Ben?

WABER: So yeah, I mean I think that when you look at the actual data, one of the issues is that if you work from home and you don't communicate with anybody, you're going to be much less effective. And a lot of the research shows that even if you work from home, if you work on a remote team, you need to meet in person occasionally in order to be successful, just to have that sense of what is really this other person about.

Can I trust them? How should I talk to them? That's something that's very difficult to do right now remotely. Just the communication tools we have today are just very bad at supporting those kind of interactions.

CONAN: There was interesting conclusions you came to, that even when there is video conferencing, the more people you add in, the less effective it is.

WABER: Well, when you think about - I mean for those of us who have been on video conference calls, what typically will happen is you'll have one or two people who are going to dominate the discussion, and adding other people in just means those are - that's one more person who's not participating, and that makes them feel left out, and at the end of the day it really means that the whole conference doesn't really accomplish very much.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Chase in Denver: I work for a small software company in Denver, Colorado. One way my company increases efficiency and morale is by implementing a dress code called flip-flops or ties, allowing employees to be more comfortable during our busy periods. Employees dress how is most comfortable for them.

The program has been immensely successful. Shankar, I wonder if you've had any thoughts about that.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think certainly. I mean so encouraging people to be themselves I think is really important. I was reading a recent paper by this marvelous researcher called Robin Ely(ph); she's actually at the Harvard Business School. And what she did was she looked at this large financial company, it's a bank that had 500 branches all over the Northeast.

And she looked at how, you know, how do people in these - in each of these branches think of their ability to learn or to contribute. And what she found was that there was a very strong correlation between the reported willingness of people to share information, to be themselves, to be creative, and the productivity of the branch.

And so it wasn't just how different are people. You know, a company where everyone wears flip-flops, is that going to be a creative company? Well, maybe, but maybe it's not going to be a creative company. It's really what are people willing to share with one another, to take risks and to learn from one another - that's what makes the difference.

CONAN: And I wonder, Ben Waber, does your data suggest, all right, call center, not the most creative environment on the planet. I think all of us would...

WABER: I think we can agree on that.

CONAN: Agree on that. In more creative environments, graphic design (unintelligible) do the data continue to support these kind of conclusions?

WABER: I think it does. I mean I think what's really interesting is - again, I think exactly what Shankar was mentioning was that if you feel more comfortable interacting with other people and opening up to them, then maybe you can make unpopular assertions, and you can have a more productive discussion rather than keep things to yourself and wait for everything to fall apart before saying, oh, well, I thought of that a while ago.

CONAN: All right, let's get another caller in. This is Judy, Judy on the line with us from Cape Cod.

JUDY: Hi, Neal. Thanks for having my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JUDY: I wondered if any research or any data was collected regarding the comfort of a person on the job as far as temperature, you know, physical comfort, all of those things. I work in an office that's in an older building, and our particular department is very cold in the summer. When the air conditioning is on, it's like walking into a refrigerator in the morning.

And we all complain incessantly, of course, and I'm - I just wonder how that affects morale and if you have any data on that.

CONAN: The big chill, Ben Waber.

JUDY: The big chill.

WABER: So we don't have any data on that specifically, but I would say that this is another good point about things like temperature actually being very important for companies, being very important for morale, but something that companies often don't pay attention to.

You think that, you know, oh, a thermostat, that's just someone in HR, that's their business. But when you look at the numbers, I am sure that is going to have a significant impact on the bottom line for companies.

CONAN: Shankar, intuitively you would say of course it's going to affect productivity. Do intuitive conclusions, are they questionable a lot of the times?

VEDANTAM: I think they actually are questionable much of the time, and what I'm about to say is probably going to make me the most unpopular man in America, but I'm going to say it anyway, because I'm stuck in front of a microphone.

You know, I'm going to make a plug for actually being uncomfortable. You know, we often, I think, place too much of a premium on actually being comfortable. And I was speaking with this wonderful psychiatrist called Ron Heifitz(ph), and he's done a lot of work looking at leadership and, you know, the role of what leadership actually does.

And the analogy he often uses is the analogy of the pressure cooker. So if you think about the pressure cooker, you get the lentils and the carrots to mix only because there's pressure inside the pressure cooker. You take the pressure out and the lentils and carrots don't actually mix with one another.

Now, I'm not necessarily saying this means we should all turn the temperature down to 40 degrees because, you know, not all kinds of conflict are equally good. But certainly encouraging conflict between people in the workplace, you know, creative conflict is, I think, fundamentally a good thing to do, not a bad thing to do.

CONAN: Tough it out, Judy, I think that's what you just heard.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY: OK, thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. One of the parts of your research that I was very interested in, Ben Waber, is the fact that these kinds of behaviors, using your data, can be taught.

WABER: Well, I think that's what's really interesting, is a lot of these things just people naturally behave in a certain way. You naturally reach out and talk to lots of people. You naturally have a tightly knit group. But there are small ways you can change your behavior.

First of all, once you know that, for example, reaching out is important, you can do something as simple as going to the coffee area even if you don't drink coffee and just sitting there, having a cup of water and talk with some people. And it's very easy to do, and it actually has a very big impact.

CONAN: And how do you convince people that they're not doing enough of it and that doing more of it might be helpful?

WABER: So, a lot of times, what we do is when we go into companies, first of all you have the numbers. You can say, this is how much of this specific activity you did. This is what it relates to on the bottom line, and here are some ways you can improve. And it's very difficult for people to argue with hard numbers. You can show that that behavior has a very tangible impact on their outcome.

CONAN: And the data enables you to have effectively a feedback loop. You can say, look, you haven't done this the past week and your productivity is down.

WABER: Exactly. I think that's what's - when you look at the future of this technology, that's what's really exciting. Imagine having this data for millions of people for years at a time. The types of things that researchers can learn, but also the types of things that you can learn about yourself and how you're changing over time, I think, is really exciting.

CONAN: Shankar, you look like you have some questions about it.

VEDANTAM: Well, I really had a thought, which is when you - if you go to the standard office cafeteria, what you find is not just people sitting, you know, in big tables and small tables, but you find that people cluster. And so, sociologists have noted this for many, many years. They call it homophily, that if you go to a workplace, you will find, you know, older workers sitting with older workers, and younger workers sitting with younger workers, and people in this department sitting with people in their own department.

CONAN: Yeah. High school again, yeah.

VEDANTAM: Right. And so I think it's clear that what we want is to get people to mix. But I think if a command comes down from on high, from management, saying, you shall now meet with people from another department, I'm not sure how effective it's going to be.

And what I actually find interesting about the long table idea is that it's actually a very subtle nudge, if you will. You know, the - Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein had this book "Nudge" a few years ago. And what it's about is basically that the way you shape the architectural choices that people have has a very powerful role in what kind of choices they end up making. So, in other words, we think of our choices as being completely autonomous and volitional. But really, we're shaped, our behavior is shaped by whether the table is, you know, small or long.

CONAN: So it's not a mandate. It's a suggestion.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I think a suggestion is much more powerful. I don't know if Ben's research speaks to that at all in terms of what's effective. But, you know, if a manager came and told me, you shall now go and speak to this person down the hall that you don't actually like, I'm not sure I'd follow the advice.

WABER: Yeah. Well, I think that's a very good point, is that a lot of the times, the way that organizations think about communication and collaboration, they say, well, you report to this person. So that means you have to talk to them. But that's not what happens. That's not actually how work gets done. And I think that's another reason why you find companies all across the world with very smart people doing the same, frankly, dumb things because they have this sort of view on how people should be interacting.

CONAN: That's Ben Waber, who's president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, and his new book is called "Social Sense." It's due out next year. Also with us, Shankar Vedantam, who's the correspondent with NPR science desk. His book is "The Hidden Brain." We're at the Aspen Ideas Festival. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Isabel(ph): I recently started my first job out of college. A lot of what's being said is resonating with me. I find that if I don't take scheduled lunch breaks with my co-workers, I find myself seeking out other forms of interaction, generally through texting, social media or reading articles online, clearly reducing my productivity. Today might be one of those days. I guess I'm looking to interact with people through this program. I hope my boss isn't listening.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And there were sort of conflicting data that we talked about - exploration, going outside of your workgroup. But also you want to build team spirit.

WABER: Yeah. Well, I think there's sort of two parts to this, right? It's not just that interacting with many diverse people is always good. You also need to have this core group of people that you can commiserate with. If you don't have that core group of people that you can trust, you can imagine talking to people in many different groups. And it'll be very difficult for us to be on the same page all the time because you don't know what I'm working on. I don't know what you're working on.

And trust is also hard to develop in that - in those circumstances because I don't - if I give you a piece of advice, I have no idea if you're holding out on me, versus if we're in a tight-knit group, I can give you advice. And if it turns out you gave all of our other friends advice, I'm going to find out about it.

CONAN: Let's get a question here on the microphone.

MONA SHIPLEY: Hi. My name is Mona Shipley(ph). I'm from India. And while you're talking about different office environments, I think one of the things we need to take into consideration is different cultures as well. I'm particularly talking about the Asian culture and the open office environment. Globally, they say, it's a place, if you work in an open office environment, you have more teamwork, more productivity or whatever.

But in Asian culture, there is like a tendency to eavesdrop at times, and that could be like - that could land up a lot of people in problem. But at the - so that's just an opinion that I have. So when we are talking and discussing, I think culture also play a role in different office environments. I don't know if there's a research on that.

CONAN: I'm not sure there's research, but I'm sure glad eavesdropping never happens in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Shankar, any thoughts on that?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I mean, I think I'd be cautious about stereotyping an entire group or sort of assuming that this happens only in one context or another. But I certainly think that the questioner's point - which is that the culture - that culture matters, that, you know, you want to be sensitive to what's happening and what - how people are. You know, using the information you're giving them is very valuable. But I'd be fascinated to know if there's actually research that looks at non-U.S., non-Western context and finds the same things are affected elsewhere.

CONAN: I know you've done research in Germany. Elsewhere?

WABER: Yeah. We've done research in Germany. We've also done research in Japan. Actually, I lived in Japan for a while. It's very interesting because in Japan - actually, I guess similar to in India - they're big proponents of the open office model.

But what that means in Japan is sometimes you have an open office where you have 3,000 people sitting in one room. And it's interesting because it's open, and so you can talk to anybody. But as a result, you can't talk to anybody because if you say something, 3,000 people are going to hear what you're saying.

And I think it's something where we have to take that into account and take culture into account when we look at this data. I mean, I think the important thing - from our perspective, I guess - is that we need to collect data on an Indian company. How - what makes people effective? And it might not be the same thing that makes people effective here.

But I would argue that you do see a lot of things translate across cultures, and you do see a lot of things that - you know, even within the U.S., there are some companies - you know, for example, if you come into Facebook with flip-flops, maybe you won't get fired. If you work at hedge fund, you probably would. And there's just different cultures in different companies.

CONAN: I wonder - I just have a few seconds left, but has there been much resistance to the admittedly big-brotherish aspect of knowing where somebody is all the time, what their facial gestures are, what their tones of voice are and what their gestures are like?

WABER: Yes. So I think what's really important - in our work, we actually - we use an opt-in model. So we don't force people to participate, and they can even wear a fake badge if they don't want to participate so that nobody knows that they're not participating. I think the danger is certainly that actually under the U.S. legal system, an employer could force its employees to wear these sort of sensors, and they could actually track them, versus in a lot of other companies - countries you can't do that. So I think that's something we need to consider as we move forward.

CONAN: Ben Waber, interesting. Thank you very much for being with us today. Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions. And our thanks also to Shankar Vendantam, who's a correspondent for NPR's science desk. And well, be busy on Friday night, won't you?

VEDANTAM: I will indeed, Neal.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.

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