Will Wearables Increase Our Productivity?

I’ll admit it: my personal experience with wearable technology is limited to FitBit, which tracks my daily physical activity and uploads it to an online fitness program. But recently, the University of London took wearables to a whole new level. In partnership with Rackspace, it conducted a one-month trial with 120 participants at marketing firm Mindshare to assess if wearables could in fact boost employee productivity.

The resulting research paper, The Human Cloud at Work: A 2014 Study into the Impact of Wearable Technologies, indicates that the answer is a resounding yes. Participant productivity jumped 8.5 percent and job satisfaction climbed 3.5 percent.

The participants were equipped with one of the three devices – the GENEActiv high-velocity accelerometer wristband, which measures movement and activity; the NeuroSky Mindwave portable biosensor EEG, which monitors brain activity; and the LUMOback posture and activity coach, which issues a pulse to remind its wearer to sit up straight.

Brave New World

Readings from the devices contributed to the employees’ Performance At Work (PAW) scores and allowed the researchers to develop rich behavioral and lifestyle profiles for each participant. Consider the following story developed for a woman they called “Chloe:”

“Chloe’s mid-sleep time is 3:45 am, which is in the later quartile and would suggest she is younger as mid-sleep time tends to get earlier with age. She’s an owl rather than a lark but not a party animal. Her sleep time is average (7.5 hours), as is her quality of sleep. She is generally active, but not a gym bunny, although she often has long sedentary periods in the office, which can be interpreted as a longer-term potential health risk. She has regular rise and bed times and has used the devices consistently, so is likely to be a conscientious individual. Given the fact that she is an owl, she is likely to enjoy a lie-in at the weekends. She has a short commute (it takes her less than 90 minutes to be at work from waking) and doesn’t have children.”

So how would managers use this information? Well, in Chloe’s case, there is little cause for concern. But what about an employee who comes into work for an important meeting after having slept only a few hours? What if an employee who turned off his monitoring devices at a particular time in the business day? Would this cause a micromanager boss to wonder what he’s up to?

Despite how Big Brother-ish this all sounds, since wearable technology gained momentum in the consumer space a few years ago, businesses have been eager to use it to gain an edge in the competitive 21st century economy. And corporate investment is one of the main reasons the market for wearables is expected to swell to $3 billion this year.

Wearables Raise Endless Questions

I for one don’t expect the arrival of the wearable workplace to be seamless. In addition to an obvious invasion of privacy that would rightfully cause many employees to balk, what will organizations do with the massive influx of data from employee wearables? Even the most robust IT infrastructures will not be able to handle it unless they’re totally cloud-based – and most companies are a long way from that. Furthermore, what actions will organizations think to take as a result of recorded information, and what legal implications might those actions have?

There’s no doubt that wearable technology will rapidly transform the way we work and how we are evaluated. In some ways, the changes will be good. After all, data doesn’t lie, and since they are being watched, both in-office employees and telecommuters will be more likely to stay on task and look for ways to contribute meaningfully. But in other ways, wearables are likely to make the relationship between organization and employee more confusing than it already is.

If you could start being monitored tomorrow, would you want to?

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Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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