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Let it take off, or take it off? Employers must address important issues when considering wearable technology in the workplace

Published on Saturday, 07 Nov 2015
Let it take off, or take it off? Employers must address important issues when considering wearable technology in the workplace

The Background

These days many of us are rarely caught without some form of wearable technology on us, be it a smartphone, smartwatch or some sort of fitness wristband. In fact, the odds are that you are reading this on your smartphone right now. It also seems we are no longer just using wearable technology in our own personal time. More employers are now trying to integrate wearable technology in the workplace. 

But introducing wearable technology is not easy and can damage a company’s brand if it does not think about the issues in advance. Some organisations have had negative publicity after accusations that they monitored employee movement, including trips to the toilet, and fired anyone not working quickly enough. Other employers have been accused of covertly monitoring employees.

To be clear, when we refer to wearable technology, we are talking about any sort of electronic device that can be worn on the body. It may be incorporated into clothing, like yoga clothing, which can analyse your posture, or a standalone accessory like a smart watch. Devices are typically connected to the internet so data can be uploaded, exchanged and analysed. Although not strictly “worn”, some people consider smartphones to be wearable technology simply because of their prevalence. 

The Trending Technology

In a survey of mainland Chinese workers conducted by Kronos in late 2014, 81 per cent used wearable technology at work and 94 per cent believed that the technology could benefit the workplace (compared with 48 per cent of workers in the US). Wearable technology is already being tried out in large companies across Asia. Singapore Power recently rolled out wearables that allow staff to perform tasks hands-free, using an interface activated by voice, touch and hand gestures. A spokesman for the company says the trend is a potential “game-changer”.

It is not difficult to see the appeal to employers – they can collect and analyse employee data, allowing them to monitor performance or productivity and work out how to improve services they offer clients. Some devices track biological signs, allowing employers to analyse when workers are at their peak and when they’re not having a good day. 

GPS trackers fitted to workers and products in distribution centres can help employers gauge the efficiency of collection and distribution, manage stock levels and improve accuracy. This may also allow employers to streamline operations – it has been reported that some distribution centres have been able to reduce their headcount by up to 20 per cent by using wearable GPS devices. 

The Smart Thinking

If you are thinking of using wearable technology in your workplace, data privacy is an obvious concern. Data privacy regulators have already said wearable technology is as much subject to data protection laws as other data-sharing platforms. Reviewing and updating policies on monitoring employees and data privacy is crucial – your policies may no longer apply because they don’t cater for wearable technology. 

A strong and stable security system is also essential. How easy is it to record and store your confidential information on wearable devices? If data is stored in clouds, it may be more difficult to track.The loss of confidential such information may damage your business, incur fines with regulators and cost customers. This is even more important for personal devices as it will be difficult to prevent employees from covertly accessing information. 

One thing you can do is to make sure employment contracts and policies are clear that the use of personal devices to store confidential information is not permitted. Your policies may be out of date and only cover hard copy material. 

You should also expect wearable devices to increasingly be used as evidence in disciplinary hearings and to record disciplinary hearings. 

For example, an employee may secretly film or photograph behaviour that they say is victimising or discriminatory. Or they may use them to record a colleague’s performance or behaviour as a basis for blowing the whistle. You need to think about whether you are happy with this and what steps can be taken now to manage the implications. Ideally, there should be clear guidelines on whether covert recording is admissible evidence in disciplinary hearings. In most countries, disciplinary hearings do not have the same evidence requirements as a court – it may not be necessary to see covertly recorded information to make a determination. 

When rolling out wearable technology in the workplace, transparency is key. It is important to be open with employees about what data will be collected from them, what you may use their data for, why it is needed and how it helps their performance. Exercise caution and to steer clear of any practices which may be regarded as too intrusive, or you may find your company in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Wearable tech: Let it take off, or take it off?

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