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Why Your Boss Wants to Track Your Heart Rate at Work

What’s good for the firm might not be good for you.

The future of the high-performance workplace is taking shape behind closed doors and kept quiet by non-disclosure agreements.

Across the U.K., hedge funds, banks, call centers and consultancies are installing tracking systems to link biosensing wearable devices with analytics tools once the preserve of elite sports.

“There isn’t a competitive sports team in the world that doesn’t adopt high-end analytics tracking the athletes on the field, off the field, at home, when they’re sleeping, when and what they're eating,” says Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London. “The workplace is heading towards that model.”

The new tools help link human behavior and physiological data to business performance. It’s a departure from typical wearable technology strategies, which tend to focus on operational efficiency or safety

The power of the new tools is being evaluated privately, partly to avoid accusations of intrusive behavior, partly because those running the tests believe it gives them a competitive edge.

“Yes, it’s already happening, starting off with some of the big hedge funds,” says John Coates, a Cambridge neuroscientist and former Goldman Sachs trader, who is actively working with companies to link biological signals to trading success. 

His academic research focuses on understanding the physiological drivers of risk preferences. “It used to be assumed that most things that you learned at business school were pure cognitive activity, and if you’re not doing well you need better information or psychological training,” he says.

However, science is starting to show that some hormones – including naturally produced steroids and testosterone – increase confidence and make us take more risks. Stress hormones like cortisol produce the opposite effect.

McLaren envisions how people might wear biosensing wearables in the future.
McLaren envisions how people might wear biosensing wearables in the future.
McLaren Technology Group

Wearable technology – be it heart-rate monitors or skin response sensors – can give this underlying  influence more visibility, says Coates. “You need to figure out whether you should be trading or whether you should go home. If you are trading, should you double up your position because you’re in the zone?” 

Coates says he is working with three or four hedge funds to implement such an early-warning system: “A lot of smart managers think their algos have gone as far as they can go. The next step is human optimization.”

While much is happening in secret, some companies across a range of sectors are open about their experiments with biosensing wearables.

The Military Tech Maker 

Equivital wireless human monitoring equipment comes from the battlefield. The firm’s Black Ghost chest-mounted wearable sensor measures heart rate, stress levels, breathing, skin temperature and body position. The company is currently working on a predictive system to flag when someone is 20 minutes away from heat stress.

Equivital's Black Ghost system tracks levels of stress on the battlefield
Equivital's Black Ghost system tracks levels of stress on the battlefield
Equivital

Equivital’s systems are now creeping into industry, starting with oil and gas, mining and  construction – still mostly for health and safety purposes. Chief Executive Officer Anmol Sood says that’s changing: “Companies are always looking at data to ensure their own business models are as effective as possible – it makes sense to bring that data from individuals working at the company.”

The Smart Badge Firm

Humanyze’s smart work badges contain microphones and and precision positioning technology.

“We’re doing voice analysis in real time,” says CEO Ben Waber. The system looks at how much individuals talk, how loudly they speak, whether they interrupt or sound stressed. “We also look at how much you move around and interact with other teams.” 

Humanyze makes smart work badges that track how you are speaking and who you are interacting with
Humanyze makes smart work badges that track how you are speaking and who you are interacting with
Humanyze

Bank of America used Humanyze’s technology within its call centers to find out what made employees most productive in terms of numbers of completed calls. Yet it found that the biggest predictor of productivity was how staff spoke to their colleagues. Those with the closest ties to others in their group were more productive and less likely to quit than those who worked alone. The bank added a 15-minute shared coffee break to daily routines: productivity increased by 10 percent and staff turnover dropped by 70 percent. 

The Formula One Team

McLaren Applied Technologies works on evidence-based systems to maximize human efficiency, and counts KPMG and GlaxoSmithKline among its clients. Internally the company has been exploring how to get its Formula One teams to recover from jet lag most effectively. 

Eric Boullier on the pit wall.
Eric Boullier on the pit wall.

“Our teams are travelling around the world a lot. Some of them have to change wheels in the pit stop and be alert and fit, while others have to look at reams of data and need to be cognitively alert,” explains Duncan Bradley, Head of High-Performance Design.

By plotting data relating to travel schedules with heart rate variability monitors and tests to monitor cognitive alertness, the company was able to reorganize journey times and teams to suit the way different individuals coped with jet lag and stress. 

The Lifestyle Monitors

Behavior outside the workplace impacts performance as well – including exercise, sleep, food, alcohol consumption and caffeine intake. 

Peak Health works with high-potential leadership within financial organizations on joining the dots between health and performance. Founder Dan Zelezinksi has worked with people at Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and various hedge funds. He gives clients wearables to track stress physiology while keeping a journal of activities. 

“High net-worth individuals, portfolio managers and owners of organizations on the buy side are looking for any kind of edge,” he explains. The “easiest wins” tend to focus on recovery – eating well and getting good quality sleep.

“A lot of it is intuitive but you don’t know it until you see the data,” says Jason Rabinowitz, a consultant who used Zelezinksi’s services at Goldman Sachs. However, as Zelezinski points out, there’s still a big leap between physical performance and profit or loss. “We might be able to find some correlations, but it’s difficult to track.”

Man sitting on bed unable to sleep
Man sitting on bed unable to sleep

John Coates agrees: “The real problem is signal processing: having a deep insight into how your physiology is affecting your performance. Not a lot of people are doing that science. How do you link the data you are collecting to questions like, ‘Should I be trading today?’ ”

Even without those issues, there are glaring privacy and morale implications to consider. 

“You can’t all of a sudden tell people to wear a load of sensors. That’s creepy,” says Humanyze’s Waber.

Chris Brauer believes the privacy debate will fade once people realize the potential of this sort of human performance analytics.

“High achievers are very competitive with themselves as well as others. So allowing them to track when they are most productive, focused and satisfied will help them understand the conditions when they perform best,” he says.

“The idea that you can augment yourself with technologies will become absolutely commonplace and a natural progression.”

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