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Wearing your HR on your sleeve

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne February 23, 2015
Wearables are marching hard on the workplace, so time for HR to start planning its response, according to academic Dr Chris Brauer.

chris brauer
Dr Chris Brauer

I think wearables will start to come this year. There’s a big push now about the workplace implications and there are a lot wearables offering up powerful possibilities.

So predicts Dr Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The choice and the appetite for wearables, particularly in the area of fitness, are already making their mark in the consumer market. The market is gaining momentum, Dr Brauer points out, because:

Several things are happening: wearables are more diverse and integrated into everyday lifestyle and more fashionable.

According to an October 2014 PwC report, 22% of American adults already use a wearable device, such as a fitness tracker or smartwatch. Their adoption rate matches that of tablets in 2012, suggesting a massive uptake is on the cards.

A September 2014 survey by The Workforce Institute at Kronos, the HR software and services firm, found 73% of adults could see some potential for wearable technology in the workplace.

From a corporate perspective, investment in big data and analytics means organizations now have the ability to make sense of the data produced by wearables.


Given, these predictions, at the very minimum, HR teams need to incorporate wearables into their Bring your Device to Work (BYOD) policies.

But, innovative HR departments will do a hell of a lot more than merely policing their usage, and apply wearables to areas such as training, wellness and safety.

Last year, Dr Brauer led the “Human Cloud at Work” project to explore the effect of wearable technology in the workplace on productivity, performance and job satisfaction, with encouraging results.

HR on hand

In the study, participants were equipped with three devices: one to measure movement and activity, one to monitor brain activity, and a posture and activity coach which reminded wearers to sit up straight.

Results revealed that wearable devices designed to improve posture and concentration boosted workplace productivity by 8%. The 120 employees at global media agency Mindshare who took part in the project also found that their job satisfaction increased by 3%.

Impressive results and not hard to see how this could impact a ‘real’ workplace. Back pain costs US employers about $30bn a year in lost productivity, according to the Ohio State University Spine Research Institute. Using something as simple as posture monitors could potentially bring down those costs dramatically, as well as benefit the individuals concerned.

And this is only the start, believes Dr Brauer. Sensors to measure mood, or sleepiness, for example, could also have applications in the workplace.

Putting wearables to work

The range of potential applications is already emerging.
  • Health and wellbeing programs, with people are using smartwatches, such as Fitbit, which collect physical data such as the walking or activity people take a day. These devices could be incorporated into workplace wellbeing programs.
  • Safety, in situations where safety is an issue, such as handling noxious substances, working in dangerous environments or jobs requiring extreme physicality, biometric sensors monitors could be useful. They could measure vital signs such as temperature, pulse rate or blood sugar levels that could highlight when someone needs to take a break. Such sensors could also detect when long-distance drives are nodding off to sleep behind the wheel.
  • Productivity, with situations where smart glasses could provide information to employees on the job. So, for example, a field engineer could access information or a “how to” on how to mend a boiler or washing machine, leaving both hands free to actually carry out the work.
  • Recruitment, with recruiters remotely monitoring candidate performance through smart glasses.

HR needs to act

So what should HR do about wearables? It may still be early days, but there’s nothing to be lost by getting stuck in now, particularly as the technology is generally low-cost and easy to implement.

Communication is vital. It’s essential to demonstrate to users the benefits of a wearable initiative to employees and to use an opt-in approach so they don’t feel like Big Brother is watching them.  Otherwise, warns Dr Brauer, there’s a danger organizations will:

increasingly be perceived as a Big Brother surveillance organization that doesn’t respect the borders between the workplace and home.

HR needs to own this relationship and manage this social contract between employer and employees and establish how to use the data for the benefit of all.

There are also technological implications. In the short Goldsmiths’s study, for example, each employee generated 30Gb of data. Scaling that up over a workforce will create a significant big data and analytics challenge.

Big Brother
To be avoided

Dr Brauer advises HR not to wait too long before trying out wearables (or indeed any other new technology) lest they miss the boat entirely:

The HR function itself is evolving very quickly and this particular challenge is the harbinger of a new evolution for the HR role and what’s involved. You simply can’t be a Luddite and you must really know your contract law – you’ve got to get out in front of it.

He cautions:

Look to the low-hanging fruit, and if you don’t, then it will happen to you and the word will come down from above saying to use them.”
Instead, HR should get involved and “experiment” and that means using wearables themselves. Otherwise it would be like “organizations who invest in social media, yet nobody in HR is on Tumblr or Facebook.

There’s a huge opportunity for HR to use wearables to help the workforce and to improve productivity, but there are a lot of grey areas around privacy that need to be sorted out first. As Dr Brauer points out:

There’s a dichotomy – it can be mutually beneficial or potentially an instrument of exploitation and control.

My take

The potential for wearable technology to be applied to the workplace is huge, but it needs to be handled sensitively. Wearables will work best when they benefit the employee as much if not more than their employer.

If companies try to impose its use or employees feel that this is a step too far into Orwellian Big Brother territory, then it could backfire badly.

From an HR perspective, it is definitely something that needs to be on the radar. In common with social media, wearable technology is not a big ticket item, so the barriers to entry (at least from a financial perspective) need not be too prohibitive.

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