Wired up to work

| The European | 18th September 2015


What would you trade your privacy for? The idea that a manager could track your exact movements both at work and in your private life would make many people uncomfortable. For most workers, their job stops once they leave the office; whether or not they tell colleagues about their extracurricular activities is up to them. However, it is becoming increasingly common for companies to provide their staff with wearable technologies – such as health bands and smartwatches – and record their every movement at work and beyond. With bosses (at least theoretically) able to find out exactly where their employees have been, it begs the question: why anyone would choose to hand over this kind of information?

Perhaps it’s the association with tracking tags worn by criminals or the parallels with George Orwell’s dystopian vision, 1984, either way, wearable technology can seem very sinister indeed. Consider the following scenario: you decide to leave your job because you’re fed up of your manager. You apply for various positions and get offered an interview. Knowing how much of a tyrant your boss is, and how badly he’d react to hearing you want to leave, you tell him you have a dentist’s appointment. Before the interview you remove the company’s device, but the next day your manager wants to know why you couldn’t be tracked; after all, we all need to go to the dentist. Things get uncomfortable.

While this example is fairly extreme, and most companies who have wearable devices put this data out of the hands of managers, it’s far from inconceivable, so why run the risk?

The wearables revolution

Wearable technology has been a feature of the workplace for some time now, from wrist computers to call-centre headsets as well as the more recent smartwatches and fitness bands. Since 2004, supermarket chain Tesco has been using wearables to track how employees move around aisles while stacking shelves in a bid to maximise efficiency. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, this has had mixed results – while it apparently made workers faster, it has also brought about complaints of spying.

Where just a few years ago such technology seemed like science fiction, it’s now commonplace and is set to play an ever larger role in our lives. Technology research firm Gartner predict that by 2016 worldwide sales of wearables will reach 91.3 million units. FitBit, one of the major manufacturers of wearable devices are reporting growing interest from the business market as companies start to see the value of kitting out their workers. Being able to track employees will let them better plan their activities, organise working patterns and increase efficiency.

But what do workers get out of this? A 2015 study by PwC with over 2000 participants revealed that more than half of UK adults would accept such a device from their company. While some would share personal data directly with colleagues, far more would wear these devices on the guarantee of data being anonymised and shared at aggregate level. Nonetheless, the risk of such information being hacked or a malicious manager bypassing security remains, so it seems surprising that so many people would be happy to adopt company wearables.

Fitter, happier…

While wearables have been used for longer in blue collar industries, this tends only to happen within the actual workplace setting. One beneficial example here is headsets, which ensure factory workers are not becoming too stressed or tired. These help avoid (dangerous) human error. Even the Tesco workers, mentioned above, can take their movement trackers off once they leave the store. It’s in office based industries however that the permanently worn fitness bands and smartwatches are really taking off, and one of the major applications has been related to health insurance.

Many companies with private healthcare schemes encourage workers to use one of a range of activity trackers. These record how active the wearer is and help them achieve fitness goals by measuring the amount of physical activity they’ve undertaken throughout the day. The more active the worker, the lower their healthcare premium. A healthier workforce is expected to be happier and more productive and a lower healthcare bill is, of course, appealing for the employer.

I spoke to James Allen, an executive at a global market research agency about his company’s fitness scheme, which uses the FitBit device. Mr Allen has been using the fitness tracker for about seven months and aims to meet his target of 12,500 steps per day. Mr Allen remarked: “I genuinely think the scheme has prompted me to be more active – primarily by walking to work and back on a regular basis.”

Besides simply improving his health, participating in the scheme offers James a range of benefits, both for him and his family: “The main idea is that you trigger higher levels of reward the more active you are.” So far he’s earned £40 every quarter for not smoking, saved £75 off a hotel break, picks up a free coffee every week and has a lower level excess on his health insurance. Mr Allen continued: “I paid £100 instead of £250 for a whole load of treatment – and the same for my son for a separate treatment.”

The benefits of the scheme are clear, and Mr Allen didn’t seem particularly worried about the threat of any sinister elements of the scheme either. “I’m not sure how much control I have over my data, and to be honest haven’t looked into it, but I assume that it must be fairly strict as it’s run by an insurance company. Presumably they can’t sell on data about my health,” he said. Perhaps one reason he wasn’t too worried is that his FitBit doesn’t actually track his location unlike other devices currently on the market: “I don’t think [counting] the number of steps I walk a day adds that much in terms of interesting data for them to sell – assuming they could sell it or use it for a ‘nefarious’ purpose.”

Value exchange

A recent study of wearables led by Dr Chris Brauer from the University of Goldsmiths, London, showed how the productivity of 120 employees at a global media company (who wore devices) increased considerably over the three weeks of the experiment. Employees reported being more motivated, more alert and more productive because they were able to visualise just how much they had done, boosting their sense of accomplishment.

I spoke to Dr Brauer about the findings: “What was most interesting for us in the results was in how the employees reacted and dealt with the intrusions of the wearables into the workplace and what that told us about the impending wave of innovations in the workplace wearable sector,” he said. While it’s interesting that wearables may have some impact on how productive workers are, far more significant was the way in which employees adapted to the technology.

If they felt they were getting something out of wearing devices, they were more likely to be happy to share data with their company. Dr Brauer added: “We basically found that employees were more likely to frame wearables in terms of ‘value-exchange’ with their employers than in terms of the standard privacy or work/life balance discussions. If there was sufficient value being returned to them, then they were generally more than willing to engage with sensors on the body in the workplace.”

The wrong debate?

Much of the discussion about wearables at work has been about the more obvious “Big Brother” or privacy debates. What James Allen’s experiences and Dr Brauer’s experiment show is that many workers view wearables in terms of value exchange: I’ll give you my data if you give me something back. This is corroborated by the PwC survey mentioned earlier. Anthony Bruce, one of the researchers, said: “Many workers still have an understandable Big Brother reaction to sharing any of their personal data with their employers, but our research shows that most people can be persuaded if they can see clear personal or workplace benefits.”

In the era of Facebook, Google and smartphones with GPS installed as standard, wearables are just one more source of big data collection. The privacy concerns are understandable, yet most people seem aware of the risks of sharing yet are happy to do so if they feel they’ll get something worthwhile in return.

No doubt the debate will evolve to focus less on the snooping and scaremongering and more on giving people control over the data that is held on them. But for the time being it seems to be more a question of trust, combined with that age-old tool in corporate motivation; incentive.

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