Work Wearables

These technologies will change our work lives. Will it be for the better?

Posted Aug 20, 2018

Phys, labeled for reuse
Source: Phys, labeled for reuse

A University of London study found that wearables increased productivity by 8.5 percent and  job satisfaction by 3.5 percent. So, not surprisingly, a Tractica Reseach report projects that workplace wearables, adaptations of AppleWatch- and FitBit-like devices, are projected to increase from 2.3 million units shipped in 2015 to 66.4 million by 2021. What might a day in the life of a workware-wearing white-collar worker life look like?

Julia races out of the house, jumps in the car and soon hits the inevitable gridlock. Her bracelet vibrates to let her know that her cortisol a (key stress hormone) is up. So it’s time for a deep breath after which her bracelet chimes approval. She arrives at work and instead of fumbling for her badge, the door recognizes her from her bracelet. She arrives at her desk and, no password required, her bracelet opens the file containing her employer’s draft strategic plan. After an hour, the bracelet vibrates reminding her that it’s healthy to get out of the chair at least five minutes an hour. Like a standard FitBit, it also tracked how many steps she took that day and how many hours of sleep. Because she wanted to increase her steps and valued peer support, she had opted to share her progress with selected fellow employees. (Her boss, who’s working remotely today, sees her supervisees’ productivity stats that are beamed from their bracelets, whether they’re working at home, in the San Francisco office, or one of the satellite offices in Beijing and London. Julia is glad because, as a woman of color, she’s glad there’s a color- and gender-neutral index of her performance—one less thing to worry about.

She takes a break from the strategic plan, dons her virtual-reality headset and takes the next lesson in Keys to Great Public Speaking: Answering Audience Questions. Her headset projects her onto a virtual stage with audience members asking her a question, for example, “How did you come up with that idea?” Julia stands up, answers the question, which is recorded on her webcam, and the AI-enhanced program gives her feedback on posture, eye contact, tone of voice, and conciseness. Then, she watches herself on video and rates herself on those factors plus her answer's content. Near the end of the workday, Julia pushes a button on her bracelet which reveals the pie chart of how she allocated her time today. She decides that tomorrow, she’ll spend less time on the strategic plan and more on mentoring her supervisees. Just before she's about to leave for home, a coworker asks her to move a heavy box. As she starts to lift it, the bracelet vibrates and the screen suggests, “To protect your back, consider bending your knees as you lift.” Julia returns to her car and, while the traffic is as bad as during the morning rush-hour, she now isn't as rushed, so when she pushes her bracelet's stress-level button, it chimes a thumbs-up.

All of the above is already available, usually on smart phones, or in late development, as is the case with the cortisol-stress monitor.

Some people’s reaction to this is “Eww:” It feels Big-Brothery, invasive, micromanaging, and evoking worry about potential for privacy breach. For example, let’s say a manager sees a supervisee with an ongoing high level of cortisol, that stress hormone. Yes, that could be beneficial to the worker.—it's an early warning sign that the manager should lighten the workload or provide more support. But what if that employee feels that amount of stress is manageable or that the stress-reading algorithm isn’t accurate for him or her? Shouldn’t workers, whose high stress level isn’t hurting their performance or bothering anyone else, be allowed to keep that to themselves?

Of course, many people have grown used to micro-metric management. For example, in many workplaces, customer service reps have long been evaluated on average call length, percent of issues resolved, and caller feedback. Think of how often you call customer service and before putting you in the queue, you’re asked if you would answer a brief survey at the end of the call.

Another concern is in the use of wearables to measure employee productivity. The data would be quantitative while in most jobs, the work's quality is at least as important as its quantity. That's true even in low-level jobs. A FitBit can track the number of steps a warehouse product picker takes but doesn't assess the percentage of time s/he pulls the right product from the shelf, let alone whether she, seeing a misplaced item, puts it back in the right place.  A solution probably resides in recognizing that the device's measures of productivity must be combined with subjective assessment.

Yet another concern is security.  For example, countless watches are stolen from a wrist on crowded commuter trains. By the time the employee realizes it, the thief could have gained access to the organization's proprietary information to later sell to a competitor. One solution is to, instead of the bracelet, embed a small chip under the employee's skin, but that tends to strongly evoke the aforementioned "eww" factor, so that's rarely considered.

And then there's the issue of transparency. I could imagine employers wanting to gather data useful to the organization but that might yield employee resistance and so not inform. Transparency is a must, both for ethical reasons and to encourage employee support for the use of workplace wearables.

As with most innovation, work wearables bring promise and peril. Fact is, they're coming. The question is, how do you feel about it? What aspects would you support or resist?