Wearable tech in the workplace

We know that physical and mental wellbeing is important for employee engagement and productivity. There is a clear feedback loop between employee health and engagement with an organisation. Managers who show that they sincerely care about employee wellbeing act as a driver of engagement, and Watson Wyatt (2009) found that highly engaged colleagues are much less likely to take sick days.

An increasing number of companies are investing in the health of their employees with wellness programmes and fitness schemes. Some companies are now even monitoring employees with fitness trackers, in a move that’s reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ The Circle, in which employees swallow tiny trackers and wear bracelets that share every collectable piece of data about their personal wellbeing.

But are these companies going a step too far to encourage their employees to do their recommended 10,000 steps a day? Wearable technology gives companies the ability to collect vast amounts of data on their employees, mining this data for insights which can potentially be linked to business performance indicators such as productivity and financial returns.

Big data is big news – we have the capability to collect more information than ever before, and many of us voluntarily share data about our daily lives, from the location-tracking apps on our smartphones to the social media stories that we ‘like’. Internet surveillance and mass collection of data seems inescapable, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that a survey from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that “a large pool of Americans feel resigned to the inevitability of surveillance and the power of marketers to harvest their data”.

The Orwellian ‘Big Brother is watching you’ factor is a huge issue in employees feeling comfortable with wearable tech. While The Economist Intelligence Unit argues that the majority of employees are happy with fitness monitoring as long as they receive a clear and transparent privacy guarantee, the Penn-Annenberg research counters this with the finding that knowledge is not a prerequisite for trust. In their survey, people who know the most about marketing practices are more likely to be resigned to their inevitability – they feel powerless to change anything.

Supporters of wearable tech argue that it is harmless as long as it is transparent. But it seems that many people actually feel it is futile to challenge the omnipresent collection of personal information, believing that they have already lost control over their data.

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That’s not to say that wearable technology in the workplace is all bad – it has clear potential. Take ‘SmartCaps‘, for instance. A SmartCap is a baseball cap with a difference: it contains sensors to detect alertness levels and fatigue, and sounds an alarm before a dangerous “micro-sleep event”. Rio Tinto and Anglo American are among the businesses who have started to implement this new technology, helping to increase safety in their mines.

But it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have clear advantages for using products such as SmartCaps, especially considering that operator fatigue is one of the main reasons for mining accidents. On the flip side, the high-level nature of monitoring technology means that companies can choose to monitor the tiniest details of their employees’ workdays – leading to ethical issues such as invasion of privacy, security dangers like data breaches and cyber-attacks, and the potential for lowered morale and engagement.

It might also be worth considering that instead of searching for a technological solution to issues in the workplace, there could be other simpler and less costly solutions. If fatigue is a major issue, perhaps focusing on scheduling (e.g. optimal working hours and break times) could help to resolve the problem. SmartCaps are a great idea, but they can’t stop someone being fatigued unless they are paired with a fix that addresses the root cause.

A more dubious example of wearable tech in the workplace is Amazon’s alleged use of electronic trackers to monitor the number of boxes that employees pack, sensing if workers are spending time chatting or taking too many bathroom breaks. It’s a brutal system of ‘survival of the fittest’, with GPS trackers allegedly being used to track the routes employees take – employees who work in these types of conditions are at an increased risk of physical and mental illness. There are many dangers to this type of monitoring: it treats workers like machines and sends signals to employees that they can’t be trusted, creating a culture of fear and blame.

For the time-being, it’s up to individual companies to set their own parameters on wearable tech – there isn’t a set of agreed standards or best practices for its use. We think that the most important starting point is that wearable tech programmes should always be optional. Even when they have an excellent purpose – like the SmartCap – making them mandatory could be a slippery slope towards a dystopian future.

If organisations choose to use wearable tech as a way of increasing engagement, they need to be aware of the potential pitfalls and the possibility that it could backfire.

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Posted on 3rd March 2016 in Insight
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