Wearable technology has been praised for its ability to transform the workplace, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The Human Cloud At Work study, led by researchers from the University of London, in 2014, found that wearable technology -- like brain activity sensors and motion monitors -- increased productivity in individuals by 8.5 percent, while their job satisfaction levels went up by 3.5 percent.
Companies are using wearables in the workplace for several reasons. And one big one is their desire to help employees better manage personal health to reduce the number of absences and to lower healthcare costs.
Wearables also boost employee productivity: Mobile apps keep workers better connected to the offices and co-workers and allow instant updates.
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Collecting and analyzing wearable data from employees may sound a little like Big Brother, and there’s certainly a great deal of responsibility on the side of the employer to handle data appropriately. But, when done right, it has the potential to impact real change in the office. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using wearables at work:
Why they're good.
Wearable technology isn’t just for tracking steps anymore, a 2015 report published by Salesforce suggested: Among the 500 companies surveyed, 23 percent reported using using wearables to improve workplace security. Digital lanyards and smart glasses can help manage access to secured areas, for example. These kinds of wearables also track and monitor who is accessing what information at various times.
Twenty percent of companies using wearablesm meanwhile, said they were doing so to improve employee time-management through apps that assist with tracking time, and monitor and prioritize to-do lists and alter schedules in real time.
Another 20 percent said they used wearables for real-time employee communication. Employees can access email and messaging on smartwatches -- which arguably avoids smartphone distractions through wearables' ability to provide information at a glance.
Other employers are using wearables to improve the safety of their workers. Devices like Kinetic help protect employees from serious injuries and work-related accidents. Sensors and sophisticated algorithms give workers insights into how they’re lifting heavy objects and alert them when they perform movements that might lead to back injuries.
The bottom line? Employers are accessing more data than ever before. The use of aggregate data -- data combined from various measurements -- gives employers a big-picture view of the health, well-being, safety and productivity of their workers; and analyzing this information can lead to important decisions affecting the workplace and the staff.
For example, devices like Zensorium’s Being recognize awake periods and REM and NREM sleep cycles, while also monitoring heart rate, calories, steps, speed of movement and other performance data. Such information gives users a full picture of how their stress and mood impact their daily lives. This aggregate data can also be used to make proper adjustments for employees striving to hit health and wellness goals.
Buffer, staying true to its culture of transparency, even encourages employees to share their wellness and productivity goals with their team, along with the data their wearables collect. Although this approach may not be right for every culture, it shows the importance of trust and openness when collecting and analyzing data.
These kinds of insights collected from wearables can lead to more effective schedules, better work hours and more targeted wellness initiatives that actually get employees moving.
Why they're not so good.
Because some of these technologies are so new, there’s no guarantee that their data is accurate. A 2016 study by California State Polytechnic University-Pomona found Fitbit’s heart rate tracking, for example, to be highly inaccurate, sometimes misreading beats per minute by more than 15 beats.
For that reason, using data from wearables to supplement some talent management decisions may be a tough call. Employers want to trust the analytics they’re using to make any changes in the workplace. And the accuracy issue raises questions about how the data should be used, if at all.
Another problem: Employees may rightly get a little freaked out when they think their employer is monitoring their every move in the office, tracking their exercise habits and keeping an eye on health data. And some won’t trust that the data will be used fairly. In fact, 40 percent of those surveyed by PwC in a 2016 report said they didn't trust their employers to use data for their benefit, while 41 percent didn't trust that their employer wouldn't use the data against them.
So, while 44 percent of employees said they would be happy to use wearable technology provided by their employer, and allow that employer to collect data from it, there remain almost as many employees who are skeptical. This split among employees makes implementing a wearables program a hard sell.
Like any major company cultural shift, the wearables question all goes back to asking for feedback from your people. Gauge employee interest in participating in a wearables program. If they are willing to do so, and if the company can save money by reducing workplace injuries and employee absences --or improving employee performance and productivity -- wearables may be worth the investment.
If you do implement wearables at your office, look at the data collected as a whole and use it to make better decisions to help everyone. At the same time, encourage employees to use their individual data to make changes that will benefit them.
They can build better sleeping habits, for example, or work habits or even change their schedules to be more productive and improve performance.
At the same time, be up-front with employees about why the data is being collected, how it will be used and how it will benefit them. Be as transparent as possible, so employees can make an informed decision about whether to participate and contribute their data. Wearable technology doesn’t need to be scary for HR, but it certainly needs to be handled properly.