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