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Does the connected workforce breach employee privacy?

Fernando Alvarez | July 30, 2014
Wearables will make it infinitely easier for companies to track employees. But without transparency, that will foster suspicion.

Wearables are much more than a consumer fad. They are a natural step in the digital transformation of the workplace, with the potential to drive significant productivity and efficiency gains for organizations that can cleverly take advantage of them. But if they aren't implemented thoughtfully, they also have the potential to antagonize employees who feel such devices are being deployed to breach their privacy.

According to research firm ABI Research, the enterprise wearables market is expected to reach $18 billion by 2019, with the North American region foreseen as the largest market, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 39% over the next five years. As wearables become more widely accepted by consumers, organizations are starting to see how the convergence of mobile, cloud, data and social can enhance operations to create a more collaborative, connected workforce. The problem is that what organizations see isn't always what their employees see.

At the heart of the connected workforce is employee measurability, offering firms the opportunity to enhance real-time decision-making through the application of non-intrusive, wearable devices that integrate with corporate databases, wireless systems and sensors to continuously track employee location and activity. Safety is also a common driver (in a hazardous environment, it makes sense to be able to track employee movements at all times, and respond quickly to any incidents), but another factor is resource allocation. If an oil company discovers an issue on a remote rig, the common solution is to scramble a task force of people to investigate. With a more connected workforce, in-built equipment sensors linked to wearable technology can immediately alert the most skilled employee to the issue before it becomes a problem. The vision is an Internet of things and people, and the potential cost savings are huge.

That's the organizations' viewpoint, but if wearables aren't deployed with care and sensitivity, employees can see them as a sinister intrusion of their privacy. Rosabeth Moss Kanter first coined the term "Information Panopticon" to describe the potential dangers of living in an Orwellian world full of interconnected devices. While interconnected devices can be beneficial, the accidental or deliberate misuse of the information they make available could be damaging.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with enhancing employee measurability, but privacy watchers maintain that organizations should be careful what they measure. If it is fine to track employees' movements around the warehouse, is it also fine to continue tracking those employees during their lunch break? Possibly -- if safety is the chief concern -- but can employees trust that the data won't be used for other purposes not entirely in their best interests?

There are many guidelines organizations need to follow to ensure they don't overstep the mark. The key to effective behavior tracking is ensuring that the data collected is analyzed in the context of the person you're measuring and aligned with the company's strategic objectives. If one employee travels a greater distance in the working day than another, what does that mean? What about sick days -- how do you reasonably compare one employee to another? How do you compare use of the corporate intranet, or a mobile phone bill -- what does particularly high usage mean? What is high usage?

 

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