x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Trend: big brother is watching what you do at work

How productive are you? Your manager may be about to find out, thanks to the rise of workplace wearable devices.

Having a productive day? No doubt you’ve already powered through your morning to-do list, and you’re now setting about that PowerPoint presentation that you promised the boss you’d finish.

That must be how you’ve got time to take a lunch break and read the paper. Wait, you are reading this on a scheduled break, right?

Don’t worry, I won’t tell. But soon enough, you – and all of us – may find ourselves in workplaces where taking a quick glance at the newspaper comes with new consequences.

That’s because sensor-laden wearable devices are helping to lift the veil that keeps the moment-to-moment activities of employees hidden from their employers. These technologies are provided highly detailed, real-time information on activity and productivity: and they’re already being put to use by US companies such as Bank of America and the furnishings provider Steelcase. So, are you ready to reshape your working day – and your lunch break – around the new age of productivity data?

This week, The Wall Street Journal wrote a Bank of America project to study productivity among call-centre workers. During the study, the Bank asked around 90 employees to wear small badges that would record their movements and the tone of their conversations. Analysis of the resulting data showed a link between speaking regularly to colleagues and being productive: so Bank of America began scheduling group breaks, rather than individual breaks, for workers. Productivity rose by more than 10 per cent.

Meanwhile, late last month it emerged that the UK supermarket giant Tesco now requires warehouse workers to wear Motorola armbands that relay data on how quickly they unload and scan goods arriving at the warehouse. The armbands monitor all other movement, too: including bathroom breaks. Data is crunched to calculate a productivity score for each employee: fall below a certain threshold and an employee can expect a summons to the manager’s office.

The productivity data trend is just one manifestation of the way that wearable devices will transform our lives in the years ahead. That transformation is already in full swing when it comes to health and fitness, thanks to the rise of wearable trackers such as the Nike+ Fuelband, which monitors and provides data on physical activity and wellness. Proponents say these technologies will guide us to a more self-aware, healthier – and now, presumably, more productive – future.

Of course, choosing to wear the Fuelband is one thing. But when these technologies are brought into workplaces, the ethics become fuzzy. Do they constitute an infringement on the individual employee’s right to privacy? How far should our employers be able to probe into our minute-to-minute activity while we’re in the workplace?

And what will productivity data mean for the way employees are assessed and rewarded? One provider of the technologies behind all this, the ominously named Sociometric Solutions, says it’s possible to infer from personal activity data whether an employee is likely to leave a company, or be promoted, in the coming months. Soon enough, your manager may know that you’ll soon be announcing your departure before you know yourself.

Let us face this future together, then, copy of 1984 in one hand, DVD box set of The Office in the other. In the meantime, treasure your unscheduled newspaper breaks while you still can.


David Mattin is lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com

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