Friday 21 October 2016 12:20 pm

Wearables at work: How businesses can avoid Big Brother syndrome

News that 22,000 Metropolitan Police officers will be equipped with body worn video cameras to cut down on complaints, must count as one of the biggest roll-outs of workplace wearables in the UK to date.

The move brings to mind Gartner's prediction that over the next two years two million US employees in high risk or physically challenging roles will need to wear some form of tracking device as part of their job requirement. Gartner’s forecasts focus on devices for monitoring health and fitness however the overall picture is clear – work wearables are on the increase. Figures from ABI Research suggest that global shipments of workplace wearables will reach 154 million by 2021, nearly double what they are now.

Requiring paramedics or the police to wear monitoring devices for their own safety or as tool to improve outcomes, is a sensible and appropriate use for workplace wearables. In the Met’s case, a trial of body worn cameras found they reduced complaints against the force by 33 per cent.

But increased high tech monitoring of employees raises fears of Big Brother style surveillance. A recent survey by PwC reports that employees’ lack of trust around how data from work wearables would be used, is stalling their adoption.

So how can organisations that want to try wearables with their workforces avoid being seen as Big Brother businesses and alienating their employees? Here are three top tips from a human-centred point of view:

1. Get your workplace culture fit for purpose

Workplace wearables – especially those used for monitoring purposes – are potentially divisive and can increase trust issues between management and employees. Understand your workplace culture before introducing wearables. How hierarchical or flat is your organisation? How is company morale? Are there any underlying issues or recent disputes that could affect how staff might view the introduction of wearables?

2. Prioritise trust over tech

Workplace wearables are most effective when they are addressing a very specific problem such as mixed reality headsets to help engineers visualise 3D objects or smart watches with sensors that check for poisonous gases in factories. What problem are you trying to solve by using a work wearable? If the need is about monitoring employees, think about how to increase trust first before introducing technology.

3. Involve employees in the discussion and design of work wearables

I wonder how much say Met Police officers had in the roll-out of body worn cameras? Work wearables are likely to be more successful if employees are part of the discussions about whether to go ahead, rather than being imposed by senior management. Businesses considering wearables should consult fully with employees and involve them in agreeing the purpose, design and guidelines for the device’s use, what data it collects and the usage and rights to this data.

Workplace wearables have the potential to be a positive force for change, making our lives at work safer, more productive and enjoyable. Deployed carelessly, they could divide organisations leading to a massive loss in trust.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.