09.05.2017

Traffic lights on the desk to reset workplace manners

400Red light, stay away; green light, feel free to hang around and gab. That’s the gist of FlowLight, a new innovation in workplace productivity from UBC computer scientist Thomas Fritz.

Fritz first started work on the "FlowLight" at the University of Zurich. It was inspired by a system used by workers at international engineering firm ABB Inc., wherein they would place road safety cones on their desks when they didn't want to be disturbed.

“When you’re interrupted, it can take a long time to get back into your work and it’s more likely you’ll make mistakes,” said Fritz, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at UBC in Vancouver, in a press release.

The FlowLight determines an employee's engagement simply by tracking their keyboard and mouse activity – the more they're typing and mousing, the more it's assumed that they're concentrating, resulting in the light turning red. When the activity lessens, it goes back to green.

There's a maximum amount of time that the light can be red within one day, however. This is to keep people from feeling that they're not working hard enough, or from competing with their coworkers.

When tested with a total of 449 employees at 15 ABB offices in 12 countries for four weeks, the FlowLight system was said to have produced good results. Users reported 46 percent less interruptions, along with a work culture in which people were more respectful of one another's time.

Of course, keyboard and mouse activity are not the only indications that someone is hard at work. Recently, Fritz and his PhD student Manuela Zuger from the University of Zurich, have tested a more advanced version of the FlowLight with companies in Vancouver to determine whether it can be improved by using biometric sensors to detect heart rate variability, pupil dilation, eye blinks or even brainwave activity. For this research, they are also collaborating with two Canadian companies that develop biometric sensors, Interaxon and Mio Global.

They hope to market their device in the next few years.


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