Should You Use Wearables To Track Your Employees?

It may increase productivity, but at what cost?


According to estimates by marketing group ABI Research, somewhere in the region of 202 million wearable devices were given to employees by companies in 2016, and that figure is expected rise to more than 500 million by 2021. But are they really a good idea?

Wearable tech is purportedly given to employees in order to fulfil one of three functions. First, it can be used as a safety precaution. SmartCap, for example, is an Australian product designed to monitor the wearer’s brainwaves. It can predict when a truck driver is becoming fatigued and approaching a ‘micro-sleep’, so they can be alerted to get off the road and not endanger either themselves or their fellow drivers. Second, wearables enable remote training. XOEye has developed smartglasses that can capture and relay HD footage of complex problems encountered by those in construction, manufacturing, and other remote jobs. The footage can then be assessed by an expert in real time and advice given accordingly. Finally, they are being used as logistics streamliners. Amazon’s warehouse employees, for example, wear GPS tags and are directed on the quickest possible route to their next product.

There are, however, obvious advantages for companies in tracking their employees’ whereabouts, primarily in terms of scaring them into productivity. And the results would seem to support their use. A 2014 study from Goldsmiths, University of London, entitled ‘Human Cloud at Work,’ found that employees using wearable technology were 8.5% more productive compared to those without wearables. While there may be positives, though, collecting data on employees’ health and their physical movement opens a Pandora’s box of ethical and legal issues for employers, and it is likely to damage morale. On top of this, there is the question of whether or not they even actually work. It’s one thing being fired because your fitness tracker suggests you’ve been at the pub all night, it’s another thing entirely if said fitness tracker has a history of producing inaccurate results. And there are some serious questions about the accuracy of many of the apps that power these devices. Early in 2016, three people filed a class-action lawsuit against Fitbit, alleging that the company’s PurePulse Trackers gave inaccurate readings for their heart rates. One claimant said that her tracker recorded her heart rate at 82 beats per minute, but a follow-up check by a personal trainer found that it was actually 160 beats per minute. Researchers at Iowa State University also found similar discrepancies when testing how well they do at measuring energy expenditures. In tests, they discovered that the accuracy of eight activity trackers was off by as much as 15% when compared to a precise laboratory measurement, with the highest being off by 23.5%. For wearables to even be considered as a method of monitoring employee, they need to be 100% accurate. Even if you’re not firing someone based on their results, they are likely to prejudice managers and lead to a whole host of other issues.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which people are comfortable being essentially lo-jacked by their employer, particularly outside of working hours. Any company that implements trackers should do so with strict requirements that employees either leave them in the workplace or disable them upon leaving, and they must be transparent about how they are being used and what is being done with the data. If what you are doing makes your employees uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t be doing it, and any wearables will have to be put into use extremely delicately.

We asked four HR data specialists what they thought about employers using the technology.

Michael Gethers, Data Scientist at Salesforce

The future of workforce analytics is wide open and could go in any number of different directions. What I expect, though, is that we’ll see a shift away from active data collection (i.e. surveys, scorecards, anything that requires manual data input) toward passive, non-intrusive data collection (collection that happens in the background and does not influence the day-to-day life of the employee). This is where the big data boom began, as passive data collection was built into everyday products and services, and I think we’ll see HR departments follow that lead. This data can be collected more quickly, more accurately, and less abrasively than its active counterpart, but requires more of an initial investment in infrastructure to get it up and running. I think that as more companies commit to data science in the workforce analytics space, that will be seen as less of a prohibitive barrier to entry and more of a small upfront cost associated with massive downstream potential.

Wearable devices seem to be particularly intrusive, and I have to believe that a company initiative that involved the collection of data from them (even voluntarily) would be met with significant resistance. But it is important to remember that people’s willingness to offer up their personal data is almost entirely predicated on trust: trust that that data will not be used with nefarious intent, and trust that they will actually derive some personal benefit from surrendering it. If a company is able to build that trust with its employees regarding wearable devices, then it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that this could be another opportunity for passive data collection.

Stephen Chesley, Senior Workforce Planning Specialist at NASA

The idea of using all available data (from wearable devices, web crawlers, etc.) is tempting but could cross the creepiness-factor’ line. I hope we don’t move too far in that direction.

Faranak Raissi, Senior Director of Integrated Talent Management at Gap

I think we can get data/metrics on employees with wearables but there would certainly be data privacy/HIPPA considerations. I think one of the key things is making more technologies accessible through mobile devices (e.g. LMS, HR platforms) because more and more people are doing things on the phones vs. laptops. I think also moving away from traditional methods of collecting feedback (e.g. in performance reviews with the manager writing the review) to more crowd sourcing type technologies. Lastly, I think the ability to create linkage analysis across the various data platforms and use data visualization tools like Visier will also help us in being able to make analytics more readily available to HR and managers.

Robert Lanning, People Analytics, Insights, and Research Lead at Tesoro Corporation

This depends on the organization as a whole. I can see the potential uses for analytics from wearable technology, but I can also see the potential misuse. So, I do see use of analytics from this data increasing (particularly analytics around employee health/fitness), but widespread use will be dictated on an industry-by-industry basis. 


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