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Wearable Technology: Privacy Implications of Workplace Innovation

Wearable tech is a buzzword in certain circles at the moment.


The proliferation in recent years of fitness trackers and smartwatches, especially in the workplace, has put wearable tech firmly on the business agenda. Today we’re asking whether using new technology to monitor is ultimately a good idea for business leaders.

It’s important to remember that wearable tech in the workplace is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around for a long time, in the form of lanyards and passes that allow authorised personnel into specific areas of a building, medical devices, such as hearing aids, and even the bodycams that protect police officers and other public servants while they go about their work.

Some companies are taking things further and using wearable technology to monitor employees as they work.

Just as wearable tech is nothing new, employee monitoring is not a fresh development. Companies have long had the capability to monitor email accounts, phone conversations, and clock in/out times. Wearable tech simply increases the level of oversight potentially available.

Amazon has recently patented two types of wristband that monitor warehouse workers and buzz when mistakes are made, such as the placing of an item on the wrong shelf. Some companies are even experimenting with implanted microchips.

Corporations are increasingly interested in fitness trackers. On one hand, providing employees with health-monitoring technology as part of a corporate wellness scheme can be beneficial to both the employee and the employer, however, some businesses are using the data collected by these devices to monitor the health and movements of employees.

Is Employee Data Worth Employee Dissatisfaction?

Gathering data on any employee requires a data risk assessment and that all data gathering and retention complies with GDPR legislation. It must also be shown that there is a lawful basis for the holding of employee data, generally based upon consent or legitimate business interests. Any employer wishing to monitor employees using technology must be aware of these legal requirements.

Legality is one thing, corporate ethics and policy another. Should businesses be monitoring employees to this level? We think probably not. For one thing, workplace surveillance is highly likely to alienate potential employees. More than this, however, we must remember that employees are humans, not robots or lab experiments.

The observer effect states that the act of observing fundamentally changes the thing that is being observed. Excessive employee monitoring can lead to stress, dissatisfaction and even misconduct. Distrust breeds distrust and employees who feel like they are not trusted are more likely to try to “get away with” being less productive or other more serious misbehaviours. Conversely, of course, trust and responsibility are almost always repaid by grateful employees.

A 2016 research paper argues that monitoring systems can be effective and benign. The difference, it appears, is whether employees are involved in the design, purpose and use of the system – and whether it’s use is optional. Systems that enable employees to track their activities, for example, can led to increases in productivity by helping people to understand better how they are allocating their time.

Overall, however, in the majority of cases, increased monitoring aimed at enforcing productivity is likely to achieve the opposite effect. Respecting boundaries and placing trust in employees will be repaid in loyalty, responsibility and increased productivity.

Do you encounter monitoring technology in the workplace? Have you had good or bad experiences with wearable technology? Let us know in the comments.