A reflection of recent research and personal interest, this article discusses the implementation of wearable technology at work and its effects on productivity, safety, human connections, but also looks into the cost and potential risks. It aims to establish if wearable devices are really improving our quality of work and life, or if, on the contrary, they impede an individual’s ability to alight with an organization’s goals and values. Before this is established, however, one must be acquainted with the type of settings, in which devices and trackers are widely adopted.
In the case of tracking one’s personal wellbeing, various applications can be used in a work- as well as non-work-related environment, as wearable tech has seen a transformation from nerdy-like looks to exquisite accessories.
According to the Human Cloud at Work study by Goldsmiths University, wearable tech could improve job satisfaction by 3.5% and employee productivity by 8.5%. Leader of the study, carried out in 2015, Dr Chris Bauer says that ‘using data gathered from wearable devices, it is possible to develop rich behavioural and lifestyle profiles of individuals and/or employees.’
Other early adopters of this type of physiolytics have been in health care, the military, and the industrial sector.
Focusing on the primary use cases of wearable tech, this article is first going to outline the positive outcomes of using monitoring wearable devices.
The managing director of Deliotte, David Schatsky, believes that enhanced safety and efficiency are the most common reasons wearable tech is massively integrated into some industries. As an example, he references the smart glasses, which improve work efficiency up to 12 per cent by allowing users to check needed references without taking the glasses off, hence without any search time. Such can also be used on construction sites to avoid tearing down walls, for instance. Furthermore, they significantly reduce the number of errors made and so save the company a hefty sum annually.
Apart from this particular example, Schatsky estimates wearable tech is most popular in the warehousing and retail sector, where wearables make lifting heavy objects and ordering them more safe and efficient. Other industries that heavily benefit from the techs are the manufacturing, as well as the services sector, where the levels of strain are reduced and the speed and efficiency are increased. These industries must be represented by a relatively large percentage of the workforce, as a recent Clutch study revealed that 16 per cent of workers (based on 500 examined in Europe) use wearables in their workplace, whereas 21% of Americans use self-tracking devices in their everyday.
Aside from efficiency, many sectors benefit from better-suited employee wellness plans. ‘What we give [employers] is access to real-time data on a corporate dashboard to get visibility into the health of [their employees],’ Fitbit Group Health Division leader Amy McDonough told the Financial Times.
This way employees can easily get a health plan, which is perfectly suited to their work, strain, conditions, lifestyle preferences and so lower their health insurance premiums and take fewer sick days.
Just like their health, wearable tech users are also able to track their habits and creative patterns. As an example, the EEG headband, developed by Melon, estimates the spikes in gamma brain waves, which come about milliseconds before the ‘aha’ moment. This data, if tracked consistently, provides an overview of when an individual is most creative, for instance.
We touched upon the safety side of using wearable tech. As this is an incredibly important aspect of introducing wearables, it is crucial to mention a few examples, which vary between high-visibility vests equipped with GPS, alerting workers when they’re entering a dangerous zone and exoskeletons that minimize the strain when lifting heavy objects.
SmartCap, an Australian system, examines the employees’ brain activity and provides their managers with information about their fatigue levels. The use case of such devices would be quite appropriate in the cases of truck drivers, machine operators, and general manual laborers, whereas VivaLNK Vital Scout, a wearable monitoring the user’s stress levels, can prevent burnout and sickness. Similar is the effect of using the Google Glass app, which could also be introduced in the everyday of construction workers or firefighters, who also need to wear moisture-wicking clothing, embedded with sensors, monitoring their respiration rate and other important health components.
In other situations, where employees work independently, wearables, such as Athena, the ROAR for Good panic button, can provide help in dangerous situations, as they are equipped with dead spot coverage and room-specific location tracking. This, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is an important advancement, since nearly 2 million Americans are workplace violence victims each year, whereby 1 in 7 Americans feels unsafe at work.
Workers and security guards at the Kawasaki office of Fujitsu also wear smart wristbands to have their long-distance employers track their temperature, pulse and heart components. Similarly, the Deliotte Smart Helmet Clip sends minors and industrial workers updates on the location, presence of dangerous gasses and data on their physical condition. Such sort of communication was first used by Boeing more than two decades ago, whereby pilots were given crucial information without having to look down at the dials.
Another aspect of work, which has an enormous improvement potential is engagement. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the majority of employees enjoy interacting with wearable tech, as they provide untapped sources of information, but also because they are interactive and, in most cases, visually attractive. More than half of workers, introduced to new technology (51 per cent) express their excitement with the new improvements and 35 per cent of workers who never used wearable tech at work are enthusiastic about the potential of introducing access to new tech at work.
Even though gadgets like this can be so desirable with their looks, endless resources, safety improvement and constant evolution, there are cases, in which introducing wearable tech is less than desirable.
As James Bond-esque as it sounds, corporate espionage is a very real thing and it happens quite often at that. One might argue that most companies’ cyber security is not close to being prepared for the introduction of wearable tech devices, as they mostly use insecure Wi-Fi connections and so become the perfect target for hackers, for instance. A more trivial scenario would be for employees to extract confidential information and sell it to rival companies ever so discreetly (using Google glasses, for instance) or even unconsciously record and share intellectual property. Therefore, if implemented, the use of wearable tech devices would have to be subjected to strict regulations by HR teams.
Big Brother Effect
On the flipside, there is the possibility of creating the so-called ‘Big Brother Effect’, where the new devices provide opportunities for invasion of employee privacy even outside of the office environment. In fact, a UK study shows that many workers are concerned that their personal information could be used against them or even retrieved by hackers. In the US many states have laws against recording without consent, which creates a whole lot of liability havoc when recording business conversations via wearables.
Another concern in the same direction is the fear of discrimination based on gathered personal data. “Delivering a clear communication of the purpose and scope of wearable deployment early, i.e. well before the devices hit the floor, is important for assuaging employee concerns,” Schatsky told CMSWire. “Closely engaging employee representatives and influencers can prove effective in this effort.”
Further concerns are with regards to the distractions wearable devices can provide to the employees, much like search engines and social media platforms. Moreover, new gadgets are cool to play with, and, therefore, even more likely to cater for disturbances.
Disputable is also the cost-value factor. In order to properly carry out the usage of wearables within a company many software, as well as hardware changes and investments are required. Depending on the make, quantities, quality and other factors, implementation costs can vary. When it comes to fitness trackers, as an example, a singular piece costs between 44 and 255 USD, smart glasses, on the other hand require an investment of 1000 to 3000 USD per piece, whereas some exoskeletons cost up to 6500.
Data out of context
Taking data readings out of context is another common issue with tracking devices, which, to this moment, provide a basic analysis of performance, behavior, vital physical factors, however, these assessments don’t tend to extend beyond the classifications of predefined categories. As estimated by Harvard Business Review, only 9 per cent of companies comprehend the type of talent that drives performance within their organization (Leonardi & Contractor, 2018). This is a strong indication that employers are challenged by having to make sense of people analytics.
Inaccurate Employee Assessment
This leads to further issues, as employees receive a somewhat inaccurate assessment of their performance. This impedes their learning abilities and capabilities to give an explanation on certain outputs of their own work and ultimately creates a sense of meaninglessness.
This forms an avalanche of its own: employee alienation. Creating an environment of dehumanization and objectification accounts for toxic work climate, anger, sadness, sense of cognitive deconstruction (Bastian & Haslam, 2011) and disengages workers from the organization’s goals and values altogether. For the individuals employed this generates senses of emotional numbness and absence of meaningful thought (Twenge, Catanese, & Baumeister, 2003).
The sensations of disconnect are enhanced by the control implied through normative evaluation. The introduction of wearable techs naturally raises questions about the effectiveness of structured work: if 8 hours a day is enough work, if 7 hours sleep provide the needed rest for an individual per day, if 10, 000 steps are all it takes to complete one’s daily exercise. In this way, wearables urge employees to redefine not only their work life, but also their private engagements, as well as their general understanding of well-being. Those changes of the norms and regulations are proven to gradually re-establish normality, desirability and health in society. Biopower is a philosophical term that refers to exercising power over the human body (Foucault, 1998), and so by introducing wearables the employer exercises power over the bodily regulations of the individuals working for a certain organization and as a result changes their perception of how they should think, look and behave.
No innovation and creativity
Ultimately, this situation accounts for less creative and innovative organizations and less meaningful work. Evaluating work progress on the basis of tracking makes employees see their job as a mere means to an end rather than part of a larger mission (Muller, 2018), therefore employees question the adequacy and utility of their own work. Quantification is in truth useful when trying to achieve short-term goals, however, goal displacement can occur in the cases where employees are most focused on scores rather than their actual work and its meaning (Muller, 2018). Furthermore, focusing on instant gratification in a company indicates favouritism of certain types of strategizing and performance, which might not be as effective in the long run (for example choosing less risky but less progressive paths) (Shalley & Gilson, 2004). Making low-risk and high-reward decisions ultimately demolishes the very useful process of trial and error and impedes efforts of creativity and innovation.
In conclusion, as industries evolve, wearable technology is becoming increasingly cheaper and safer, which escalates productivity and saves human lives. On the other hand, quantification of leisure activities through the use of wearable tech has been demonstrated to be detrimental to the individual sense of meaning, bringing the focus on the outcome, rather than the experience.
Therefore, if the usage of new such devices is being implemented, one should be acquainted with what wearables can and cannot do, create mutual space for reflection, define which analysis criteria really matches the goals of the company, encourage discussions, creativity and experimentation.