March of the wearables

16 mar. 2016

March of the wearables

Wearable technology opens a new world where the ‘bio-performance’ of employees can be measured and optimised. But tech-driven productivity gains must be balanced against new legal and ethical issues, as Observe reports 

Innovation and automation have been the two pillars of improving productivity since the first factories of the Industrial Revolution.Entrepreneurs have always found ways to apply new machinery and technology to re-engineer old working practices or create new products and services; driven by the dream of achieving more in less time, at lower cost and higher margin.

Entrepreneurs have always found ways to apply new machinery and technology to re-engineer old working practices or create new products and services; driven by the dream of achieving more in less time, at lower cost and higher margin.

But what happens to processes that defy automation? What happens to those tasks where a human being is required to exercise intricate motor skills, creativity, persuasion or empathy? How do you increase human productivity and performance, at least until the advent of true artificial intelligence?

Twentieth century management textbooks tell you it is about motivation and environment. You need to think about employees’ financial rewards and benefits in kind, adapting the workplace, investing in training or plain outsourcing tasks to a cheaper, more productive labour force overseas.

The 21st century answer is ‘augmented performance’. The emergence of smart, wearable technology has opened new opportunities to understand and quantify employee performance: from identifying moments of stress that are linked to poor decision-making, to how slouching at a desk can sap productivity. Welcome to the wearable tech era of human optimisation.

The ‘quantified self’ in the workplace

The task of measuring your well-being used to be a matter for the medical profession. Today, wearable technology is democratising how we understand our own health, fitness and lifestyles. Data about anything from our sleeping patterns, the calories we burn, to stress levels and blood pressure is just a finger tap on a smartphone away. Elite sport – where the margin between good and great can be measured in milliseconds – was among the first fields to exploit this new opportunity to optimise performance. Now you’ll find wearable tech pioneers in retailing, mining, oil exploration and even on Wall Street; from white collar professionals to blue collar labour.

Truck drivers for mining group Rio Tinto in Australia wear smart caps which monitor for momentary lapses in concentration – signs of ‘microsleep’ which can lead to road accidents. Warehouse staff working for Amazon and the UK supermarket giant Tesco wear GPS trackers that guide them quickly through the shelving racks. Smart glasses are being used on remote oil platforms and fields – allowing staff on the ground to live-stream technical or infrastructure problems that expert colleagues in offices miles away could help solve.

On Wall Street and in the City of London, banks and hedge funds are using wearable tech to monitor stress and its impact on decision-making.

Research by Cambridge University neuroscientist Dr John Coates – a former Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank trader turned academic – has shown how traders become averse to risk at moments of market volatility. As their personal stress grows, traders retreat from making bold, potentially lucrative moves in the market. “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash,” Dr Coates wrote in the New York Times.

“Unfortunately, this risk aversion occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities, and when the economy most needs people to take risks.” Measuring, managing and exploiting this “biology of risk”, as Dr Coates called it, is precisely what banks and hedge funds are hoping wearable tech will help them achieve.

The scale of the opportunity

So if the impact of individual or team health and fitness on performance can now be measured unobtrusively – just by asking colleagues to wear a smart wristband or sensor pack – how significant could be the gains for a business? According to Dr Chris Bauer of the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, the commercial opportunity is “substantial”.

Dr Bauer’s Human Cloud at Work Study – sponsored by the US technology firm Rackspace included field trials of wearable technology in the workplace. The trials saw an increase in productivity from those using wearable tech of 8.5 per cent. Intriguingly, their happiness at work also increased – by 3.5 per cent – compared to peers whose performance was not “augmented” by the new technology. Dr Bauer concluded: “Wearing devices such as brain activity sensors, motion monitors and posture coaches can significantly increase employees’ productivity while also improving their job satisfaction.” Give someone a back monitor that vibrates when they start to slouch at their desk and they’ll not only be more productive, but happier too. Or so it would seem.

A legal and ethical quagmire?

However, the adoption of wearable technology in the workplace comes with an array of legal and ethical considerations. Will employees sign up willingly to having their bio-performance monitored by their managers? Probably yes, according to Nigel Beighton, the Chief Technology Officer at Rackspace.

“Many employees will already be familiar with well-being and activity monitoring as they’ll have similar applications on their smartphones,” Mr Beighton wrote in the Human Cloud at Work report.

“Introducing dedicated workplace wearable technology projects should be straightforward provided companies are open and collaborative in what data they will collect and how it will be used.” However, there is already one legal case that suggests a more cautious approach may be needed. The Californian courts are due to consider whether damages should be awarded to a sales representative fired by her employer for deleting a tracking app from her iPhone. The sales rep objected to the idea that her whereabouts could be monitored by managers in her personal as well as work time. The courts will decide whether or not her privacy was breached unlawfully and whether or not she was wrongfully dismissed.

Lawyers are likely to be busy. Bringing biology into management decision-making runs a fine line between differentiating performance and discrimination on the grounds of health or physical ability. The question of who owns data about the quantified self is murkier still. Is it the employee or the employer who owns data gathered from a smart wristband or sensor pack that is worn in the workplace? What are the limits to how that data could be used – and who gets to see it? Does a company health insurer have the right to see bio-performance data from the workplace, for example? Indeed, could the old aptitude test and psychometric test be replaced by bio-performance testing during the executive search process? The courts may well be asked to decide in the years ahead.

The question of timing

In the meantime, wearables are at the crest of a new wave of tech optimism. The market intelligence consultancy, IDC, has predicted that worldwide sales of wearable tech will rise from 19 million ‘units’ – from smart glasses to smart watches – in 2014, to 45.7 million units in 2015, to 126.1 million units in 2019. With the growing consumer adoption of this new technology, businesses face an unprecedented opportunity to quantify and optimise individual performance. There is a unique chance to identify, understand and fully realise whatever untapped potential can be found in the workplace. The pioneers in the workplace will be the first to feel the productivity and performance benefits – and the first to suffer employee pushback and litigation. But the question is less will your business embrace wearable tech and the quantified self, but when?


The Goldsmiths-Rackspace Human Cloud at Work study explored the potential of three wearable devices in the workplace:The

  • The GENEActiv high-velocity accelerometer wristband, which measures movement and activity; The NeuroSky Mindwave portable electroencephalogram (EEG) monitor – a headset that assesses brain signals for signs of concentration, stress and relaxation;
  • The NeuroSky Mindwave portable electroencephalogram (EEG) monitor – a headset that assesses brain signals for signs of concentration, stress and relaxation;
  • The LUMO back strap that can be worn under or over the clothes which acts as a posture and activity coach. It vibrates when its wearer starts to slouch at their desk. But it can also be used to track steps taken, time spent sitting, calories burned, and sleep habits.


Each elite sport now seems to boast a story of how wearable technology has revolutionised coaching and helped individual athletes or teams exceed expectations. Famously, German soccer coach Joachim Löw drew on training ground data to decide which substitute to play in extra time of the 2014 World Cup Final – the substitute who went on to score the winning goal. In basketball, Stephen Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, was highly criticised in 2015 when he rested four players mid-season after wearable tech data suggested they were highly fatigued and at greater risk of injury. An injury-free Warriors team went on to win their first NBA final in 40 years.