Sleep with one eye open, your boss is watching…

The office of the future is here and it’s asking you to exchange your privacy for perks. More and more organizations are handing out company-wide Apple Watches, Fitbits, SmartCaps, Head-Mounted Cameras, and Clip-On Computers in order to collect your personal data and streamline logistics. Research company Tractica expects

“wearables to start popping up in office environments and industrial settings in a big way, predicting that more than 75 million devices will be deployed in work settings by 2020”

On-the-job wearables are transforming the original conception of the digital workplace and have multiple uses for employers, such as health tracking and locational services. The Wall Street Journal predicts:

“40% to 50% of employers with a wellness program use trackers”

Companies with large and small workforces alike are increasingly encouraging employees to wear fitness trackers like Fitbits and Apple Watches as part of optional corporate wellness programs. Essentially this means that employers and health-insurance providers are collecting huge amounts of data like number of steps taken in a day and hours of sleep. An accumulation of employees’ personal data allows employers to receive preferential terms on employee insurance while simultaneously rewarding employees for exercising and pursuing healthier lifestyles.

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Wearable technology’s role in the workplace has clear operational benefits as well as obvious ethical implications.

Pros:

Productivity:

“Wearable tech will offer the critical missing piece of the big data puzzle that is data about human capital,” said Goldsmith University of London’s Dr. Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies

Because an accumulation of data will allow employers to better understand the physical strains of its workplace and its effect on employees’ performance, they will be able to tweak their corporate environment accordingly. Job satisfaction is directly correlated to profit boosts; therefore, employees can clearly benefit from sharing health data as a means of demanding changes in their work environments that better suit their lives and schedules.

Cost Reduction:

One of the main incentives in using wearables in the workplace is the ability to use data to secure health insurance policy premiums and reduce overall healthcare costs. This works because underwriters tend to trust wearable technology devices over self-reporting employees.

In 2015, BP implemented a company-wide incentive program, distributing 24,500 Fitbits to its North American staff. Additionally, according to a 2014 Gartner report 2,000 companies worldwide offered their staff fitness trackers in 2013 and 10,000 in 2014. The firm predicts that by 2016 most companies with more than 500 employees  will offer fitness trackers.

Efficiency:

According to a 2016 study from PwC, wearables use in the workplace have clear benefits:

  • 49% of those surveyed saying that they believe wearable tech will increase workplace efficiency
  • 37% said they expect their company to adopt the latest technology even if it doesn’t directly influence their work

For example, in terms of increasing operational efficiency, Amazon requires its warehouse employers, known as ‘pickers,’ to wear GPS tags. These location services work concurrently with handheld scanners that map out the most efficient route within the warehouse to collect an item for delivery. This process eliminates the use of clipboards to check off tasks and provides a form of rapid, direct communication with managing supervisors.

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Cons:

Legal Implications:

Although wearable technology has the potential to benefit various types of workplaces, the sharing of personal data comes with significant liability concerns. In light of the fact that data breaches occur every day and increase with the introduction of new, data-laden technologies, organizations that utilize wearable technology services are constantly susceptible to cybersecurity breaches.

Additionally, employers relying on raw productivity data to decide who gets a raise, who gets fired, or who gets promoted, may face legal backlash from those claiming discrimination. Should less-active individuals be penalized? How will wearable technology compensate for those with physical disabilities or deficiencies?

Not to mention the lawsuits surrounding the quality vs. quantity dilemma. Employers that are considered more efficient due to the rapid rate at which they complete tasks may not be producing quality work, and those that are generating results at a higher standard may not be rewarded within this numbers-based system.

Privacy:

It seems somewhat intrusive that an employer is able to track your location, hours worked, breaks taken, etc. at all times. Interestingly, according to the same 2016 PwC report only

  • 25% of respondents said they would not trust any company with personal information associated with wearable technology

Most wellness programs featuring the use of wearable technology are optional; however, what are the implications of opting out of the collect-it-all mentality? Some would argue that choosing to not participate is equivalent to guilt. Choosing to avoid being monitored could actually suggest to your employer that you are hiding something.

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What worries me most is: What happens when an employee leaves the office? If I am using my personal Apple Watch or Fitbit to partake in a company-wide wellness program, then I am going to continue using it once I leave my workplace. That does not necessarily mean that I want to feel the eyes of my supervisor on me at all times. When is the appropriate time to switch-off these various wearable devices with the capabilities to record audio, video or location data. How can we be sure our data is not being abused or recorded and used against us? In a world where there is a clear distinction between personal and professional–with some employees refusing to even friend their bosses on Facebook–is complete transparency with employers a good thing?

As a senior at Boston College I have seriously contemplated both the benefits and pitfalls of wearable technology as I enter the workforce. It seems that Edward McNicholas, a partner at law firm Sidley Austin, LLP who counsels companies on data privacy, was correct in saying:

“The only thing that is clear is that we are at the cusp of what could be a dramatically different relationship between employers and employees”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 comments

  1. francoismba · ·

    Personally, I would wear one of these fitness tracking devices in exchange for perks and insurance cost reductions. However, I don’t think that companies will actually utilize this data – the majority of companies are not qualified to manage and analyze their own data, yet alone data from thousands of its employees. Also, I have a hard time believing that companies will make changes to decrease the physical strains of its employees. The consulting firm I was previously employed at knew I was working long hours, barely slept, and didn’t have time for personal care. Even so, the company expected me to be productive no matter how many hours of sleep I was running on. Overall, I’m not sure that the benefit outweighs the cost.

  2. Very interesting topic. I think the cost-cutting aspect and increase in employee satisfaction would be the two biggest selling points for me. But I’m not sure if I would be willing to give up my privacy for these perks. It would make it extremely difficult to separate life outside of work if I knew my supervisor had the ability to track me. There’s also some potential issues with fraud, especially for the health insurance side of it. I’ve worked at companies that have created step competitions for employees who use Fitbits or MyFitnessPal. The rewards were much smaller (along the scale of catered parties or gift cards) but people would put their Fitbit on their dog to increase step count.

  3. holdthemayo4653 · ·

    Interesting post on employee privacy. My company does have a step challenge but it is self reporting and devices such as fitbits are not feeding the company data. While I think it would be a great idea for companies to collect this data and analyze trends, I highly doubt many companies are doing it. For example, my companies has major struggles with internal data and processes. I couldn’t imagine them devoting time to mining employee health data when they can’t even get customer data right. With all the other market forces that are being thrown at companies, I am not sure that invading employee privacy is the quickest way to profit.

  4. jagpalsingh03 · ·

    Great article and interesting topic! I would have never thought that companies were encouraging workers to use wearables. Like other commenters have said, the cost efficiency and increase in employee health/happiness are huge pros; however, in such a competitive workforce, employers will always look to cut the weakest link and giving employers more data enables employers. There is also the blurred line of when work ends and the personal day begins. The workday is no longer the typical 9-5 as more employees are constantly working from home, on-the-go, or out of the office. Knowing that my wrist might be sending hours of information to my boss would make me uneasy. While the idea of wearables at work is a good one, limits have to be in place before I would get onboard.

  5. Really interesting topic! I enjoyed the discussion of privacy and think it’s a valid concern in wearing one of these devices at work. However, the argument for productivity and efficiency is a valid one, especially in the case of companies like Amazon who use the trackers to create the most efficient route for their pickers.

    What do you think the implication is for people who don’t want to wear or forget to wear their wearables every day? Do you think it has the potential to reduce the effectiveness of the device, and if so, is it worth the cost to the company if the employees don’t adopt the tech? I think one of my major concerns in bringing wearable tech into companies for employee usage is that employees wouldn’t change their behavior and start wearing these devices unless (1) they are constantly reminded to do so, or (2) there are incentives for doing so.

    1. gabcandelieri · ·

      In terms of office competition for rewards/ health benefits, consequences for forgetting to wear your wearable can range from merely falling behind in comparison to more active employees without a second look from employers, to the more serious ramification of this act reflecting poorly on your character–perhaps a manager would assume the employee does not care enough to make a corporate wellness program their priority and attributes this to laziness.
      I think it really depends on the culture of the company and what value the incentive holds for the employees participating. If management makes rewards worth it, I think they can potentially see a large following, but without this incentive factor, the cost may not be worth it to the company.

  6. Great post. It was interesting when you talked about devices being “optional” to wear. I agree that there would be some questions raised if all of your co-workers are wearing devices and you opt out. With that in mind, could employers legally discriminate against people who do not want to wear these devices, or could they wearing the devices a condition of employment in the hiring process? If there was some job related functionality it seems like they might be able to. Constant contact with work via cell phone would have been a strange concept in the past, now its the norm. Hopefully wearing these devices 24/7 does not become the new norm. It would add to the feeling of work “owning you”.

  7. Great post! I think it’s interesting to see how the future of innovation is going towards a more “taking away” privacy route, as there are video filming glasses, phone trackers, and wearables now. Based on your article, there seems to be still a lot of speculation on the success of wearables as some people might react adversely while some people would just stop slacking off. It’d be interesting to see a big company like Samsung make their Watch products mandatory in monitoring the effectiveness, there would probably be huge pushback. However, I’m excited to see how efficiencies in the workplace progress and this seems like a very viable next step.

  8. Great post. I do think wearables have only begun to have their influence.

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