Wearables in the Workplace – The Internet of Creepy Things

In this Big Data world we have to remember that all of the data we collect can be misused and improperly disclosed.  We should not be collecting all the information we can collect.  We should be collecting the information we need to collect – only.  

I’ve just read a Harvard Business Review article about employers using wearables to collect data from and about their employees.  It’s behind the paywall.  The article describes a number of different ways that wearables can be used by employers, and uses the term physiolytics, which the author (H. James Wilson) defines as:

 … the practice of linking wearable computing devices with data analysis and quantified feedback to improve performance.

Here’s the creepy part: 

It’s early days for physiolytics. But over time managers in many types of companies will embrace the opportunities it offers to improve workers’ output. As with Taylor’s time and motion studies, predicting all the effects will be difficult: Although Taylorism is best remembered for sparking the age of scientific management, it was also a factor in the rise of organized labor. As wearable technology spreads, managers should keep the emphasis on creating a better team—as it was during Cam Newton’s dash. Physiolytics could then fulfill its promise as a new management science that increases organizational efficiency while heightening individual motivation.

I like the bit about how unions were in part the result of time and motion studies.  Very encouraging.  Does that mean that being attached to a bunch of sensors will result in more worker rights?  Well consider this from the same article:

At a distribution center in Ireland, Tesco workers move among 87 aisles of three-story shelves. Many wear armbands that track the goods they’re gathering, freeing up time they would otherwise spend marking clipboards. A band also allots tasks to the wearer, forecasts his completion time, and quantifies his precise movements among the facility’s 9.6 miles of shelving and 111 loading bays. A 2.8-inch display provides analytical feedback, verifying the correct fulfillment of an order, for instance, or nudging a worker whose order is short.

The grocer has been tapping such tools since 2004, when it signed a $9 million deal for an earlier generation of wearables to put into service in 300 locations across the UK. The efficiency gains it hoped for have been realized: From 2007 to 2012, the number of full-time employees needed to run a 40,000-square-foot store dropped by 18%. That pleases managers and shareholders—but not all workers, some of whom have complained about the surveillance and charged that the system measures only speed, not quality of work.

That doesn’t please all workers.  Does the number of displeased workers include the18% that lost their jobs, or just the ones that are getting nudged by the armband?

There’s also this from an article in Business Week about the same subject:

Some companies are using this approach to boost productivity. Bank of America (BAC) analyzed their call center operation to change how their employees took breaks, reducing turnover and increasing performance dramatically. Cubist Pharmaceuticals (CBST) found that it had too many coffee machines. By introducing centralized coffee areas it was able to increase serendipitous interactions and sales.

I guess only coffee machines lost their jobs at Cubist Pharmaceuticals, so that’s good. 

Beyond the risk of losing one’s job as a result of workforce data collection, being strapped to sensors all day is creepy. 

On the other hand, maybe managers should be concerned about the Hawthorne Effect.

This entry was posted in Big Data, Internet of Things, Privacy, Wearables and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.