New digital technologies are offering a transformative boost to behavioural science by turning it into a powerful tool which could help businesses optimise financial performance and right size the office space they occupy. Sociometrics, the mid-twentieth century science of measuring relationships amongst groups, has hitherto been used to assess optimum group sizes to accomplish specific tasks, and show how mentors and team leaders can be identified. At its most basic level sociometry seeks to understand the structure and interaction of groups as a means of shaping them to be more creative and productive.

are we all lab rats nowTechnology businesses like Sociometric Solutions (now Humanyze) are taking sociometrics to the next level by developing a device that captures live data through wearable tech. Analysis of this data can shape businesses for organisational effectiveness, and create workspaces that do the same. By wearing an ID badge that measures movement, the duration and frequency of face to face interactions and posture, and linking it to financial and other productivity outcomes, the company argues the information can be used to assess the effectiveness of work processes and the organisation of the space in which work happens.

These technologies are not entirely new but stem, at least philosophically, from design software like The Virtual Building Service (promoted by EIT Digital) which is a design tool able to show how people flow through and use buildings and spaces. The difference now is the need to collect data from individuals. In the UK, where the adoption of GDPR has had an impact on all our lives, technologies like this seem to raise very significant data privacy issues. The makers say the data is anonymised and that no web activity is tracked but it’s understandable that employees might feel uncomfortable being subjected to this level of monitoring.

That view may seem ironic in a world where most of us already have very a well-defined digital footprint through our use of social media and search. Our user preferences are increasing bespoke, as is our shopping experience, and consequently our web search results. Perhaps the difference is no more than this, wearing a badge at work is a more visible indicator of our data being continually collected than the much less obvious process of information exchange we engage in by using social media.

We‘re already familiar with sophisticated BMS technologies which capture the operation of building systems to optimise their efficiency. It seems a short step to do the same with user data, with the promise of much more sophisticated output, but we will need - at a society level - to be comfortable that this level of monitoring is not intrusive and doesn’t trespass on our rights as individuals.