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For Business
September 3, 2014

The quantified workplace: how far is too far?

Wearable, app- and desktop-based trackers have made data about when, where and how each of us moves and spends our time more accessible than ever before, and more actionable too.

On a personal level, this data can help us to enhance our wellbeing and live healthier lives. You can track your health and wellbeing with apps like Active Fitness, Life Positive, and Health & Fitness for your Nokia Lumia. They monitor your movements and help you set goals. Being reminded of your goals can actually help you achieve them by motivating you – as long as you’re not an ostrich.

Gathering this kind of data for personal reasons is one thing, but how would you feel about your employer knowing how much time you spend at your desk each day, how much exercise you do, or how much sleep you get?

Some businesses are interested in this data for positive reasons, like wanting to help their staff live more healthy lives, which will in turn enhance their productivity and performance and benefit the business. Other employers might use this data to check up on their employees in a way that feels more like snooping than genuine concern.

The technology might be new, but the idea of keeping an eye on what workers are doing goes back a long way – Frederick Taylor was studying working patterns in the latter part of the 19th Century – and it has always been controversial. A poll by the Financial Times shows that currently 61% of 798 people don’t think employers should be allowed to monitor staff, because employees have a right to privacy. 1

Supermarkets and retailers give thousands of workers in distribution warehouses wristbands to direct them to goods and tell them which orders to fulfil – but workers have complained that their bathroom breaks are being monitored. Any unexpected break of more than the allotted 25 minutes a day, can result in a dressing-down.2

One positive example of how the ‘quantified workplace’ is being used to benefit staff and their employers comes from Sociometric Solutions, a Boston-based company with connections to MIT. It places sophisticated sensors in employee name badges. The badges generate data about where people congregate, who socialises with whom and how people communicate. Bank of America used them to discover that getting workers to take breaks together would increase performance, as they could de-stress and share tips. The sensors even gathered data to suggest that workers spoke in less stressful tones as a result.

So, will the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Could technology such as Vigo3, which monitors your eyelids for signs of tiredness, help truck drivers avoid accidents due to fatigue? Or will we all have to watch our diets and sleep patterns in order to keep our jobs? Let us know your thoughts.

Image by Keoni Cabral | CC BY 2.0