Investing in wearable tech? Six key questions to address

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Technology has become ubiquitous in recent decades, invading almost every aspect of our work and personal lives. But in more recent years, it has assisted in blurring the already fractured line between work and home.

In most instances, wearable technology remains limited to use in the workplace. For example, UK retailer Tesco’s warehouse staff use wearable technology to track product orders.

However, for some workforces, taking off the wearable device is not an option at the end of the working day. Swedish firm Epicentre, for instance, has fitted its employees with microchips beneath their skin. The chips grant them access to the office and allow them to share their business cards; but as an artificial addition to their anatomy, they are followed as they venture away from work.

But how far is too far when it comes to wearable technology? At what point does corporate technology become invasive?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, André Spicer and Carl Cederström outlined six questions that employers need to address before implementing similar equipment into their workforce.

1. Will employees voluntarily use the wearables you’ve bought for them?

According to Spicer and Cederström, the most obvious– and the least discussed – problem with wearables is that people simply aren’t interested in using them long-term.

“Before pouring money, resources, and hope into wearables in the workplace, executivesneed to be realistic about whether employees will actually use the devices voluntarily and over a long enough period of time to glean useful insights,” they said. “In all likelihood, many probably won’t.”

2. Do wearables invade your employees’ privacy?

Spicer and Cederström noted a recent survey by PwC, which found that 82% of employees are concerned about privacy when it comes to using wearables.

“Even if your company is able to compel employees to use them, you’re likely to face questions about what information you’re actually obtaining,” they explained. “Will you suddenly have a detailed understanding of what people eat, how much they sleep, how much they drink, and what mood they are in? One very real risk is that some employees will feel that every aspect of their life is being watched, and will make choices — sometimes poor ones — based on this assumption.”

They added that many of your employees may worry that managers will consciously or unconsciously start making decisions about staff performance based on irrelevant data about their non-work lives.

3. How will wearables blur the boundaries between work and everything else?

As the popularity of wearables rises, routines will change.

“Instead of spending our time monitoring social networks, we may devote the same attention to monitoring our own moods and bodies,” said Spicer and Cederström.“Keeping an eye on our vital statistics, for example, could become seen as much a part of our extended work activities as monitoring social networks and emails is today.”

This, they hypothesised, could lead to an invasion of employees’ daily lives – perhaps without them even realising.

“Should employees be able to draw boundaries between their work and non-work lives? If the answer is ‘yes,’ how will you build these limiting functions into the technologies themselves? And how will you educate employees about these boundaries and create the right incentivize for adherence?”

4. How will you deal with all the data created by wearables?

The sheer amount of information generated by wearable devices is likely to create an overload of data for many organisations. In addition to monitoring basic metrics such as performance on tasks, firms will be charged with keeping track – and making sense — of a huge stream of physiological, emotional, and perhaps even neurological data.

“The sheer amount of information generated by wearable devices is likely to create an overload of data for many organisations,” warned Spicer and Cederström. “In addition to monitoring basic metrics such as performance on tasks, firms will be charged with keeping track and making sense of a huge stream of physiological, emotional, and perhaps even neurological data.”

This is likely to lead to a need to hire people to manage and analyse the data.

“There’s also the risk of a new form of bureaucracy based on biological information, which some people studying workplaces have termed ‘biocracy’,” they added. “If not carefully considered, there is a significant risk that it will simply reproduce all of your company’s current bureaucratic problems.”

In the worst case scenario, introducing bio-trackers without a management strategy could create significantly more work for employees and their managers, which in many cases will hinder the completion of employees’ current tasks.

5. Will wearables lead to increased employee stress?

“In the most minor of cases, wearables may be a source of increased stress for employees, especially if their wearable pumps out constant reminders that intrude into their flow of tasks,” Spicer and Cederström said. “The consequences of this could be lower morale or reduced productivity.”

Perhaps the greatest concern is that a constant stream of personal data will provoke a feeling of guilt or anxiety around issues which had never been a worry in the past.

For example, constantly drawing attention to workers’ sleeping patterns may lead an employee to start panicking that their employer will notice they are suffering with minor sleep deprivation.

People may also feel anxious if they make an unhealthy lifestyle choice, such as dietary or fitness routines.

“This can be particularly concerning for people with existing underlying mental health problems,” said Spicer and Cederström. “One study of happiness trackers, for example, found that people with depression tended to feel worse after using a device that asked them a number of times throughout the day how happy they were.”

6. Are managers willing to become life coaches?

Typically, managers are used to dealing with employee performance through a mixture of performance measures. Spicer and Cederström warned that with the rise of wearable tech, managers could be forced to deal with an entire new data set.

As a result of this, managers could be left to face managing employees’ private lives as well as their work related performance. Consequently, employees could start looking to their boss for guidance about eating, exercising – even sleeping.

This could catalyse a managerial shift from job coach to life coach – a significant change in terms of what managers can (and should) do.

“Companies need to ask whether it is appropriate for managers to play a role in helping to manage their employees’ personal lives — if they’re willing to become a cross between Orwell’s Big Brother and Oprah Winfrey,” Spicer and Cederström said. “If they think it is, are managers in your firm actually willing and able to do this? And is this actually desirable for your organization?”

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