Work From Home, balancing on- and offline time

Institutional Communication Service

26 October 2021

Pandemic, lockdown, remote working: for the past year and a half we have learned the meaning of these terms and how they impact the organisation of everyday life. Work from home (WFH), in particular, is now recognised by employers and appreciated by many knowledge workers. However, WFH can compromise the balance between the time we spend on- and offline. Computer systems can help us find a better balance, as shown by a group of researchers, including Silvia Santini, professor at the USI Faculty of Informatics and head of the PROSELF research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Not only are digital devices often essential tools for doing our jobs, but they can also help us improve our well-being and productivity. Our laptops, smartphones, smartwatches, and even earbuds are instruments that we constantly use or carry with us and that can be used to track our activities and help us reflect on our work habits. For example, they can help us reduce distractions during work activities or suggest we take a break.

"In the study we conducted at USI and in collaboration with experts in organisational psychology, we analysed a rich set of data collected from sensors available on different devices - smartwatches, laptops and smartphones - used by a group of nine workers during a typical working week. This analysis has allowed us to develop new mathematical models to recognise automatically the type of work activities performed by the workers and their level of concentration during these activities. This information, made available to the workers, can allow them to assess whether, for example, they take sufficient breaks during a typical working day, or whether they tend to lose concentration during specific activities or periods of the day", explains Prof. Santini.

According to the researchers involved in the study, the ability to automatically recognise when a user is engaged in a work activity or taking a break is therefore a key feature that personal digital devices should implement, for the purpose of improving the management of time spent online. But isn't there a risk of developing 'invasive' devices that undermine workers' privacy? Santini continues: "This risk exists, especially in a scenario where such technologies are used by the employer. Our aim, however, is to enable workers to monitor themselves, without the need to share their data with others, let alone with their employer. In fact, our studies are carried out in the context of the PROSELF project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, which aims to develop computer systems for self-monitoring at work, to support well-being and  personal productivity".

Prof. Marc Langheinrich, Dean of the Faculty of Informatics and expert in privacy and usable security, as well as partner in the PROSELF project, comments on this topic. "Privacy is fundamental right that of course also applies to the workplace. As the pandemic saw a rise in work-from-home settings, the workplace is in fact increasingly intruding in our most personal spaces! Having privacy as a key research focus in a project such as PROSELF is essential for not only complying with regulations but also to ensure the acceptance and, ultimately, success of such tools for productivity and well-being. This requires us to not only integrate the latest technical approaches for safeguarding personal data, but also to ensure that users understand and stay in control of any such data collections and uses, a research area called “usable security and privacy”.

A Multi-Sensor Approach to Automatically Recognize Breaks and Work Activities of Knowledge Workers in Academia is availble online at >> https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3411821