Wearable tech - The end of the world of work, as we know it

Stella Martorana, Research Associate

This is the end of the world of work, as we know it – employers have started monitoring their workforce through digital devices capturing employees’ data.  Wearable technologies promise to revolutionise workplace wellbeing, however they might affect also employability and performance management. In the future, some individuals could be more employable than others if they accept to use such devices and if data collected through wearables (e.g., biometrics) are satisfactory. These data could form the basis of employees’ evaluations and be discussed during performance appraisals.

The trend has received increasing press coverage over the last few years; for instance, recently The Financial Times published an insightful article entitled ‘wearables at work: the new frontier of employees’ surveillance’. Interesting reports and articles have been published by Harvard Business Review (2013), Raconteur (2015), Rackspace (2014), PwC (2014). According to Rackspace, to make the most of these technologies firms need to embrace cloud computing. The latter is necessary because another wave of big data is coming: data in different formats, produced at an impressive pace, this time inside us.

Apparently, wearables were not originally designed for the workplace and the snowball effect might account for the situation where we stand now. In fact, the market for company-provided wearables is larger than we can think of, as many companies in the healthcare, industrial and military sector have already piloted them.

Given the wide array of wearables, it is worth explaining that a general discussion might not capture benefits and disadvantages of each typology. I am particularly sceptical towards fitness trackers’, because they revive a specific stereotypical human: the homo economicus. This is a rational individual, who makes the most rational decision (e.g., lose weight) if all relevant information are available (e.g., biometric data). I believe that not everybody fall into this category. In some cases, our understanding of the underlying reasons of our behaviour enables change more than an electronic display where we can check real-time biometric data.

According to PwC (2014) and Harvard Business Review (2013), examples of other wearables in use are glasses informing warehouse workers if they are about to crash their forklift, smart badges monitoring employees’ levels of stress during meetings, armbands tracking and allotting tasks to the wearer while quantifying completion time.

There are positive applications of these new technologies, especially to healthcare and safety, so we need to harness their potential and reduce the risk for the abuse and misuse of them in the enterprise space. A research published recently on ‘New technology, Work and Employment’ (Jeske, Santuzzi, 2015) documents the detrimental effect of electronic performance monitoring (EPM) that is associated with micromanagement and leads to lower satisfaction and commitment, besides work-related withdrawal behaviour.

In the light of the fact that the wearables revolution has started, we need to develop policies and define best practices for the use of devices monitoring employees’ data. What is HR and the world of work waiting for? Do we want to lose the opportunity to have a positive impact on this trend? In the future microchip implants could replace wearables and be used for surveillance and identification; therefore, we need to act promptly.

I am afraid we are not equipped yet to deal with the ethical, legal and practical implications of such revolution. Along with Big Data, Big Brother has arrived and he might daunt us. Who are we handing our data to? How will they be used?

It is worth thinking about it, because in the future even our real-time heart rate might be available to our employer (and who knows who else).

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  • Great article, thanks for sharing - it certainly raises a lot interesting (and timely) points.

    Some would argue at the minute that we're not even doing Small Data - let alone Big Data.

    I think there are two sides to this story;

    1. There is an unimaginable amount of data collected from all of us on a daily basis by tech behemoth's like Google and Facebook. The way they go about this and how they use it is certainly questionable. I think HR departments can learn quite a few lessons from the mistakes and PR disasters these companies have had to deal with.

    2. Then there's how organisations collect customer data for Marketing. As an example, one of the solutions that the company I work for develops is training management software (www.interactivesoftware.co.uk/achiever-training-management-software). In order to ensure strict data integrity and security we have built in a number of features; encryption, permissions, unsubscribes etc. Organisations now require, and must demonstrate, such tight control of their data due to the growing awareness of this issue, that for them to keep capturing ever-increasing customer data, our solutions much develop at the same pace in order for them to do this safely.