Business person working at office desk wearing smart watch. Workplace wearables, wearables in the workplace.
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How should you feel about workplace wearables?

3 May 2018

Will workplace wearables be integral to protecting employee welfare, or will they enable employers to breach worker trust in a serious way?

The advent of the FitBit, Apple Watch and Google Glass has transformed wearable technology from fantastical sci-fi-fantasy to a borderline mundane reality that is permeating every facet of society, including the working world.

Now, employers are beginning to weigh up the benefits of deploying workplace wearables.

Even the most techno-enthused among us can’t be blamed for finding the trend disquieting. Privacy concerns have risen to the top of the public consciousness of late so the idea of anyone being able to track the minutiae of your body, especially when it’s your boss, is something requiring grave consideration.

Can we trust workplace wearables? Are they a friend to workers, or a foe?

Workplace wearables have arrived

Almost one-third of large companies surveyed by Willis Towers Watson in 2017 said that they handed out wearable devices. Evidently, this trend has already very much arrived at the doorstep of workers. In particular, the widespread use of devices such as fitness trackers is very much already a reality.

“Some employers are starting to incorporate such devices into their workplace wellness programmes,” explained Dr Deirdre O’Shea, a lecturer at the Kemmy School of Business in University of Limerick. She cited German transit company Deutsche Bahn, which has begun to use fitness trackers to encourage physical activity in some employees.

“Research in Germany is also showing that the use of Google Goggles can be beneficial for delivering respite interventions (like savouring nature) that have benefits on psychological wellbeing for shift workers.”

Technology to promote health

People are already pretty comfortable with the idea of health-monitoring devices. According to research carried out by PwC and published in 2016, 65pc of UK workers surveyed think that technology has “a real role to play in their health and wellbeing”.

Some of the most potentially beneficial applications of wearable technology could be in the health and safety domain. GPS can be leveraged to promote safe driving practice in those who have to drive for work.

“[Workplace wearables] can aid in monitoring when employees need to move or change positions which can help with common musculoskeletal issues as a result of sitting at a desk or computer,” said O’Shea

“It is not a huge leap to think that in the future wearable technology could be developed to help individuals ensure that they stay within safe levels for lifting or use correct posture.”

Nefarious purposes

O’Shea also acknowledged that the experience of being monitored itself can be stressful. “There is long-standing research going back to the Hawthorne studies conducted by psychologists in the ’20s showing that when employees are aware that they are being observed, their behaviour changes.”

Even considering the eminently practical applications for workplace wearables, it is difficult to stop the mind from immediately jumping to the logical extreme – devices monitoring our every thought, and employers hawkishly watching for even the slightest dip in productivity.

This Orwellian nightmare has already been realised, too. South China Morning Post reported just last week that workers in China are having data mined directly from their brains in the military, on production lines and at the helm of high-speed trains.

Productivity and transparency

The risk that employers may ride the productivity train to the point of dehumanising employees is one that exists even when wearables don’t come into play, of course, but wearables exponentially increase the scope for monitoring.

Even if an organisation doesn’t intend to watch their employees’ dreams or invasive practices of that ilk, data and privacy issues warrant serious consideration, especially given the impending GDPR deadline.

Employers should also be ready and willing to be transparent about why they want to deploy workplace wearables, particularly if they are mandatory.

What should we think?

The notion of workplace wearables can tap into deep-seated anxieties within the human psyche. Having technology become so closely incorporated with the body throws our notion of humanity itself into relief, and feeling watched constantly can make us as unsafe and destabilised as lake-side gazelles being eyed by a ravenous lion.

The fact that we can even consider a future in which people could have chips implanted to handle everything from debit transactions to e-tickets is dizzying, and evidence of how truly strange these times we live in are.

Wearables at work could probably go either way, given what we currently know. Really, as usual, it’ll fall on the heads of those utilising the technology to guide its deployment with morality and sensitivity in order to ensure that none of the grim possibilities of these devices is ever realised.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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