Wearables in the workplace

H. James Wilson
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Wearable technology has the ability to improve organisational efficiency while heightening individual motivation.

Getting set for his 40-yard dash, the Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton leaned into a sprinter’s stance and swept his left arm upward, ready for the downward thrust that would launch him off the line. The Forty, as insiders call it, is the premiere test of raw speed. Newton’s burst at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine showed that he has plenty of it: He covered the distance in 4.59 seconds.

Team managers didn’t have to rely on stopwatches to judge his quickness. Woven into his red Under Armour shirt were sensors that transmitted real-time statistics on the physics and physiology of his performance to the computers of scouts, coaches and league officials. Five years ago scouts assessed players’ Forties solely on the basis of time. Today an array of wearable sensors offer them rich data about every inch of a player’s sprint.

The scene is a harbinger of the widespread use of what I call “physiolytics,” the practice of linking wearable computing devices with data analysis and quantified feedback to improve performance. Physiolytics grew out of two trends. The first is a wave of innovation in wearable technologies. Current items range from sensors in shoes to smart bracelets. The second trend is big data.

For an NFL prospect looking to earn millions a year, it’s obvious why obsessing over fractions of seconds could be worthwhile. But physiolytics is spreading to workers in factory and office settings as well. As it does, it represents the next evolution of the time and motion studies done by the efficiency expert Frederick Taylor a century ago. Taylor examined iron workers individually to derive generalisable insights. Physiolytics goes much further, offering three kinds of analysis.

Quantifying movements within physical work environments

The first kind of analysis focuses on people’s movements in various work settings. For many workers, the prospect creates anxiety: Oh, no, I’m being watched! Managers must concentrate on issues that drive productivity and communicate that the goal is to improve organisational performance, not to punish individuals.

At a distribution centre in Ireland, many Tesco workers wear armbands that track the goods they’re gathering, freeing up time they would otherwise spend marking clipboards. A band also allots tasks to the wearer, forecasts his completion time and quantifies his precise movements. A 2.8-inch display provides analytical feedback, verifying the correct fulfilment of an order, for instance, or nudging a worker whose order is short.

The grocer has been tapping such tools since 2004, when it signed a $9 million deal for an earlier generation of wearables to put into service in 300 locations across the U.K. The efficiency gains it hoped for have been realised: From 2007 to 2012, the number of full-time employees needed to run a 40,000-square-foot store dropped by 18 per cent. That pleases managers and shareholders — but not all workers, some of whom have complained about the surveillance and charged that the system measures only speed, not quality of work.

Other early adopters of this type of physiolytics have been in health care, the military and the industrial sector. They use tracking not just to increase productivity but also for health and personal safety, and they have gotten a better reception among workers.

Consider this win-win use of physiolytics: About 90 per cent of companies now offer wellness programmes, some of which encourage employees to use Fitbit and other devices that measure the quantity and intensity of their workouts and to employ simple visual and motivational tools to track their progress. Because the programmes are administered by third-party providers, employers can’t see any individual’s metrics.

But the aggregate analytics give them robust insights about correlations between wellness, job satisfaction and financial performance. The wellness programme provider Carewise, whose members use Fitbit, has found that the health care costs of highly engaged participants rise just 0.7 per cent annually, compared with 24 per cent for less engaged participants.

Working with information more efficiently

The second kind aims to make knowledge work more efficient by analysing the time and motion required to perform a process. Because knowledge work is often idiosyncratic, this approach requires close collaboration between managers and employees. Although increased efficiency is an important outcome, these initiatives primarily aim to help employees work smarter, not faster.

Boeing became a leader in this area more than 20 years ago, when it began using head-up displays in cockpits so that pilots could obtain critical information without looking down at dials. It then applied the technology to its manufacturing operations, issuing the gear to wire-assembly experts to free them of the need to flip through instruction manuals. Other companies have followed suit.

Mobile workers check their smartphones more than 150 times a day, on average. This ubiquitous act presents a new frontier for improvement: Each check typically requires a sequence of movements (type in password, choose app, enter data) that takes about 20 seconds. Emerging wearables, most notably Google Glass, will replace those steps with “microinteractions” — simple gestures that take far less time.

Analysing the big data inside us

The third kind quantifies the physiological functions, from the movements of our hearts to the firings of neurons in our brains that underlie how we work. Melon has developed an EEG headband that helps wearers understand their cognitive patterns. For instance, it measures the spikes in gamma brain waves that occur milliseconds before an “aha” moment — data that might, over time, give users insight into when they are most likely to be creative.

A fundamental question is whether these tools can support broad organisational objectives without eroding privacy. Recent tests conducted by the French video game publisher Ubisoft suggest a workable blueprint. The firm developed a finger-clamp sensor that measures levels of stress. Because the device is linked to a gaming interface, it addresses “a serious issue in a non-threatening, fun way,” says its developer, Olivier Janin. Users can view their stats privately and can see aggregated user results; they can also opt out, anonymously, at any time. The recorded stress levels for one group dropped more than 50 per cent during the course of the test period.

It’s early days for physiolytics. But over time managers in many types of companies will embrace the opportunities it offers to improve workers’ output. As with Taylor’s time and motion studies, predicting all the effects will be difficult: Although Taylorism is best remembered for sparking the age of scientific management, it was also a factor in the rise of organised labour. As wearable technology spreads, managers should keep the emphasis on creating a better team. Physiolytics could then fulfil its promise as a new management science that increases organisational efficiency while heightening individual motivation.

The writer is a senior researcher at Babson

Executive Education.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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