With workplace wearables on the rise, Tom McQueen, MD of digital innovation consultancy Futurice believes they raise important issues around trust and risk.
From smart caps that monitor brain waves to check whether long distance lorry drivers are dozing off at the wheel, to binocular smart glasses that use augmented reality projections to help with complex manufacturing and medical science projects, there is a growing market for workplace wearables. Industry analysts Compass Intelligence expects the market for enterprise wearables to grow annually by 139% over the next few years, fuelled by demand from healthcare and energy sectors.
Growth forecasts aside, the likely impact of wearables on the workplace is a lot harder to assess, given the range of wearable technologies and how they could be applied to different contexts. Even at this early stage, workplace wearables used to monitor employees' health, wellbeing and whereabouts, are set to raise interesting issues around trust and risk.
Gartner Inc. recently predicted that by 2018, two million US employees in dangerous or physically demanding roles will be expected to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment. Gartner suggests that the police, firefighters and paramedics - those working in high risk situations - are among the employees most likely to be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices for their own safety. Their heart rates, blood pressure and stress levels could be remotely monitored and advice or help could be sent immediately if needed. In addition to emergency services personnel, Gartner believes that other groups of employees likely to be required to wear health and fitness monitors could include professional athletes, airline pilots, industrial workers and remote field workers.
If correct, Gartner's forecast potentially raises a host of legal, ethical and privacy issues for workers in these sectors. I suspect most of us, including those working in high risk roles, would support the use of work wearables, especially if it improves their safety and the safety of the public they are serving. When it comes to professional athletes, their heart rate, blood pressure and more are already closely monitored as part of their day-to-day life to ensure peak performance. Of course introducing wearable work technology is much more likely to succeed in its goals if the intended users are encouraged to participate in the design, prototyping and ongoing use of the technology.
A greyer ethical area arises when an organisation might consider a wearable to manage something that is not about protecting human life, or promoting peak performance. Accenture for example is reported to have been approached by financial services companies to monitor people making big financial decisions. With the 2008 financial crisis still fresh in our memories, some might argue there is a strong case for physically monitoring financial sector employees involved in taking high risk /high stakes decisions. After all there is research to suggest elevated testosterone levels are likely to lead to risk taking behaviour. But how likely are wearables to curb undesirable behaviours in individuals, and how much is down to company culture and regulatory failures? Would this be treating the symptoms rather than the cause?
In more general work situations, the question of requiring employees to wear devices to monitor their health and wellness or as a form of surveillance raises more difficult ethical issues. Working at a consultancy with a culture built on trust, I believe the future of work requires employers to give more trust to employees, not less. With the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, tasks requiring a high level of certainty and low levels of decision making will increasingly be automated, leaving the most complex work requiring a human touch - for now. After all, if you can't trust your staff, why not use a robot that will do exactly as you want?
What's more, evidence suggests that employees are likely to resist attempts to increase digital surveillance of their activities at work. For example, a recent PwC survey on wearables in the workplace found that only 46% of UK employees surveyed would accept a free piece of wearable technology from their company if their employers had access to the data recorded. Data privacy was cited as the main reason for this with four in ten of those surveyed saying they do not trust their employer to use the data for their benefit and 37% saying that they don't trust their employer not to use the data against them in some way. Once again, engaging employees in the discussion, design and development process around wearables will lead to better outcomes for all.
As digital consultants the first questions we always ask clients are "why?" and "what's the problem worth solving?" Organisations considering adopting work wearables need to ask themselves the same questions. If the answer involves "helping our people do x, y, z better" then that's a good start, and remember to involve your people in the process. However, if the problem your business faces is that "we don't trust our staff," maybe the solution is a cultural one, not a wearable one