Innovation

Every step you take: How wearables will help the boss keep tabs on staff

As businesses look for ways to boost productivity, interest is growing in monitoring how workers cope with stress and other physiological traits. Are we about to enter the age of the biometric CV?

Heart rate variability is just one measure used to determine stress.
iStockphoto/mustafahacalaki
Would you wear a device that tells your employer how stressed you are, how you're sleeping or how often you leave your desk?

The use of wearable devices to capture that type of personal information could become a routine part of corporate life in the near future, as companies seek ways to make workforces more productive, said Dr Chris Brauer, director of innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Taking their cue from the world of sport, where the top athletes boost performance by monitoring heart rate and other biometric data, Brauer thinks that businesses in general will follow a similar track.

As companies start to better understand the connections between the condition of the employee and performance "gathering reliable data round that will become a competitive advantage", said Brauer.

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Dr Chris Brauer, director of innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London
Image: Goldsmiths, University of London

"Similar to sports science, it'll eventually lead to a situation where those that have invested and made strategic decisions to integrate these kind of technologies into their workforce will be more competitive."

Brauer foresees a point where businesses that don't track employee data in this way won't be able to compete with firms that do - much as "a football team can't compete with another football team that uses this type of technology".

"Metaphorically - you'd be sending injured players onto the pitch, while the other team understands the performance of their workforce granularly, in a way that means they're always optimising performance and productivity."

The road to employee monitoring

Today wearables such as smart watches and bands can track fitness by monitoring a person's heart rate, steps and number of hours slept and are generally aimed at individuals who want to improve their health. They are niche products but demand is growing, at least for devices produced by Fitbit and Apple.

However, in recent years life insurance companies have begun tapping into the data these devices collect, offering schemes that reward members for healthy lifestyle choices. An example is Oscar, a New York-based insurer that gives members fitness trackers and rewards them with Amazon gift cards for hitting daily targets for steps taken.

Now insurers and employers are looking at other ways of exploiting wearable data to improve staff productivity and reduce risk.

Davide Morelli is CTO of BioBeats, a startup that uses machine learning to derive information about a person's health and state of mind from the physiological data collected by wearables.

BioBeats is investigating how stress - derived from patterns in physiological data such as heart rate variability - affects performance and risky decision taking among financial traders. Morelli said its work in this area has already attracted the attention of an insurer looking for better ways to assess risk in financial firms.

"Imagine a trading floor, the stress you're exposed to every day is very high and you make decisions very quickly," he said, speaking at the RE•WORK Deep Learning in Healthcare Summit. "Stress is very important for the quality of those decisions."

BioBeats is looking at how to "track when the stress level is at the optimal rate". A certain level of stress can help traders make more profitable decisions but "if it goes too high and stays too high for too long it can become a danger because you can become less focused" he said. "So tracking the correlation between productivity and stress, that's what we're interested in."

Morelli sees employers and insurers being increasingly interested in using physiological data gathered by wearables to predict and improve employee performance and to dynamically adjust premiums for individuals and companies: "By looking at the physiology, you can understand in general the performance of the employee."

The world of sport is again leading the way in investigating the relationship between stress and performance. In the UK, a firm called Extreme Biometrics is using Cardiac Vagal Tone (CVT) levels to determine stress in racing car drivers for the team McLaren, according to Goldsmith's Brauer.

"They're able to do things like evaluate, as the drivers are approaching a corner, at what point they start to get anxious and stressed."

Brauer says this data helps McLaren identify the optimal level of stress for taking these bends, allowing the team to better coach and evaluate new drivers.

While the practice of measuring heartrate, stress and sleep pattterns of employees is almost unheard of in most firms today, Brauer has run trials of the technology in various businesses.

His experience is that individual employees generally quickly appreciate the benefit of understanding how this physiological data relates to their performance and wellbeing at work.

"On an individual level, when you make this data visible to people then quite quickly they say they don't want to go back. They want to know that information and they feel a bit lost without it."

"[You can say] 'every day you get natural sunlight at lunchtime your productivity is 20 percent higher'. 'You need to start work at 10am instead of 9am, you're too stressed in the morning, you're not able to adapt'. Simple things like that, which are the correlations you can see in the data.

"That's powerful for people. When they get that kind of data and then you take it away [at the end of the trial] people go through near-withdrawal," he said, adding it can also give employees evidence to support them when asking employers to make changes in the workplace.

There may be trouble ahead

There are various challenges to implementing such employee monitoring schemes today.

Perhaps the biggest barrier could be legal in nature. The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) — the UK body responsible for safeguarding privacy — says data collected from wearables would be classed as "sensitive personal data" and as such employers would face restrictions in processing it.

"Before businesses begin using wearable technologies to collect personal information they must be able to justify its use and need to consider whether its introduction is proportionate, necessary and addresses a pressing social need," an ICO spokesman said.

"This includes making sure that people are being informed about how their details are being collected and used, only collecting information that is relevant, adequate and not excessive and ensuring that any information that needs to be collected is kept securely and deleted once it is no longer required.

"Even if staff did consent to their data being gathered it would be appropriate for the employer to consider whether it would nevertheless be possible to anonymise the data and to only use that anonymised information for their intended purposes."

Other critics of such schemes have questioned whether consent would really be optional if employees had to agree to monitoring to get a job and how this physiological data could be used to penalise employees or put additional pressure on them in the workplace.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "Employers have a legitimate right to monitor their workers' performance, but that right doesn't extend outside the workplace, and it doesn't extend inside people's bodies to physiological measurements. If competition begins pushing companies to pressure workers to accept such intrusions, that's when it's time for regulatory protection."

However, Brauer says ultimately it's in no-one's interest for employers to use such data against the workforce, as the resulting breakdown in trust would damage the organisation's effectiveness.

"It would lead to a very significant lack of trust and credibility between the workforce and the organisation and we've got lots of data that tells us that if you don't have a motivated and engaged workforce then, no matter what kind of sensor data you're getting, it's very unlikely you're going to be able to compete, particularly in fast-moving competitive landscapes."

Other potential issues are technical. In trials of schemes Brauer said it has sometimes been difficult to accurately derive measures such as stress from physiological data and then to correlate that stress with employee performance in a meaningful way. Another roadblock is working out what success look like for employees, which Brauer said can be particularly tricky for knowledge-based workers such as journalists.

But Brauer believes the use of such schemes will grow, predicting a time when biometric data that reflects how you handle stress in the workplace is part of your CV.

"Particularly on trading floors, you'll see guys in the next couple of years going into organisations and saying 'Here's my biometric CV demonstrating two years of longitudinal data about how I perform under stress'.

"This data will increasingly become a valuable commodity in trying to retain the best talent."

More on wearables...

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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