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Duluth research part of national study about work productivity

DULUTH — If a FitBit can make us better at working out, maybe it can make us better at working, too.

That's the basic premise behind a nationwide study looking at work performance using wearables, smartphones and other technology that can track responses to different tasks.

"We're going to test a system that we hope will objectively assess everyday job performance so that employers and employees will be able to better understand factors that influence job performance," said Dr. Mustafa al'Absi, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus who is part of a six-university research team.

The technological revolution has created a perplexing problem in the modern workplace — even as some jobs get easier or increasingly automated, productivity growth has stalled. Since the recession, productivity has risen just 1.1 percent per year, half the average yearly gains made since the 1940s.

"With regard to labor productivity ... it has become clear that the United States is in one of its slowest-growth periods since the end of World War II," according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from January.

The stakes are high, then, for research that could edge up performance, and thus productivity, even marginally. And beyond the obvious employer benefits of getting more from their workforce, al'Absi says doing better at work can lead to a better quality of life, including higher wages and self-satisfaction.

"It's helpful for employees as well as employers — employees learn how to optimize their efforts, and employers can get greater productivity," he said. "It becomes a win-win situation in the workplace."

Stressing objectivity

Al'Absi joins researchers at five other schools — the University of Memphis; Cornell University; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Ohio State University — for the mPerf, or mobile performance, study.

"Things like stress, level of alertness, tolerance for distraction, one's ability to adapt to multitasking, interpersonal issues and dynamics — all these things can affect our performance," al'Absi said. "Our goal for our particular laboratory and research is to focus on things related to stress."

The professor, a member of the UM medical school's Duluth campus for 20 years, has specialized in stress research, especially as it relates to addiction. How stress relates to work will be tested in labs that mimic workplace activities while subjects are monitored with existing technology.

"The way we currently measure and assess performance and aptitude: We may do an interview, we may do some questionnaires, cognitive testing — but it's not going to give you a real-time assessment," al'Absi said. "You can't test these things on a day-to-day basis, and they're not objective."

The objectivity of the data is key, he stressed, and that could be the biggest breakthrough of all in measuring worker performance.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is paying for the $13.8 million study through its IARPA program — Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. The research is part of another acronym nestled inside IARPA — MOSAIC, or Multimodal Objective Sensing to Assess Individuals with Context.

"The goal of this really is to understand how intelligence analysts can better cope with the stresses of high-consequence decisions or judgments," IARPA Director Jason Matheny told the News Tribune. "The findings should be relevant to a range of professions."

There are plenty of tools to pick up on behaviors and reactions in real time. The hard part comes in making sense of all the data that comes in. Once it's all sorted out, though, there will be a baseline for researchers to reference and build on that says "X task" is related to "Y response." That could open the door to better working lives, al'Absi said.

"Most people spend a large part of their lives at work and working — so developing ways to improve job performance, this is what we hope we can contribute toward."

Productivity stalling

The stock market remains strong, and the job market is in a good place. But neither measure is a true reflection of the bigger economic picture. Productivity can at least better tell the story of why the economy might still be stressing us out.

"Sluggish productivity growth has implications for worker compensation," reads the Bureau of Labor Statistics report from January. "Real hourly compensation growth depends upon gains in labor productivity; thus, low labor productivity growth can limit potential gains for workers."

If the stagnant wages that have stuck around since the recession ended are tied to worker productivity, then the increasing unaffordability of housing and other essentials can be blamed on productivity as well. And the current workforce won't be the only one to suffer.

"If labor productivity grows an average of 2 percent per year, average living standards for our children's generation will be twice what we experienced," Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said in a speech last month. "If labor productivity grows an average of 1 percent per year (as it is now), the difference is dramatic: Living standards will take two generations to double."

But will employees be willing to turn over real-time performance data about themselves outside of a laboratory setting — if that is something the study and greater populace finds useful, feasible and/or ethical?

Matheny said that's not exactly the aim of the study, which is unique in its scope.

"The goal is to understand the mechanisms of stress and workplace performance — not to develop some sort of system for continuous evaluation."

Producing better

It will be four years before the study concludes, and no doubt there will be countless other efforts to boost productivity between now and then. Technology, and our views toward it, will also change.

Al'Absi also acknowledges the uncertainty behind his research, empirical as it is: "I can not predict what we are going to find."

Yet the ambitions are enormous — tracking worker behavior and physiology to improve performance and productivity to improve the lives of workers — and it could all come down to something as simple and repetitive as tracking someone sending an email in a laboratory in Duluth.

"There is space to contribute uniquely to this knowledge," al'Absi said. "People learning to optimize their performance are going to obtain better satisfaction and produce better."

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