Wearables at work: Why employees don’t need to fear an office Big Brother

Yann Bonduelle
Would wearables be welcome or seen as an intrusion into your private life?
Imagine the following scenario. An employer has given a wearable device to one of their most high-performing staff members. Among other functions, the wearable monitors the employee’s heart rate and blood pressure over a period of six months. After analysing the data collected, it becomes obvious that the employee is more stressed on Wednesday mornings. A conversation reveals a more difficult commute that day due to childcare demands. The employer and employee agree a different working pattern, resulting in a happier worker, better performance and, ultimately, greater staff engagement and loyalty. Is this a far-fetched vision, or something that employers should seriously consider?

There is no doubt that organisations have more data on their staff than ever before. The challenge they face is to generate real insights from it. The tools that are now available to help gather and analyse data offer employers a genuine opportunity to help manage and motivate people. If organisations can get the OK to track the activity levels, travel time, blood pressure and heart rates of their people, they will understand more about their employees and will be able to better tailor the incentives they offer them.

We carried out research to look at people’s attitudes towards wearables, and whether – and under what circumstances – they would be comfortable wearing them at work. Would wearables be welcome or seen as an intrusion into their private lives?

More than half of employees we surveyed would consider wearing a smart watch given to them by their employer, if their data was used to improve things such as working hours, conditions and stress levels, with the goal of improving their well-being at work. Flexible working hours, free health screening, and health and fitness incentives are the benefits people are most willing to share their personal data for.

The younger generation of millennial workers, born between 1980 and 1995, is the most comfortable sharing personal data. Six in 10 would be happy to use a work-supplied wearable, rising to seven in 10 if they’re getting a better work deal in return. Workers aged over 55 are the most sceptical about taking up such an offer.

Unsurprisingly, trust is the main potential barrier to people being willing to share their personal data with their employer. A full 41 per cent say they don’t trust their boss not to use the data against them in some way. This “big brother” reaction is understandable, but our research shows that most people can be persuaded of the value of wearables if they can see a clear benefit. The key to success is to make sure organisations have the trust of their people. This entails making employees aware of what data organisations hold about them and why, and giving them an informed choice.

Organisations need to show that they are keeping personal data secure and managing it responsibly. If they can do this, giving their workforce wearable devices presents a great opportunity to improve employee well-being through better understanding their working patterns and tailoring office life to individuals’ needs. This should ultimately lead to more engaged, happy and higher-performing employees.

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