Date: 03/05/16 Duration: 00:17:00

We’re becoming increasingly addicted to measuring our own performance; how fast we run, how many steps we take, how much and what kind of sleep we get. Needless to say, wearable technology has enormous potential for businesses too; understanding employee data can help guide investment in many business areas including engagement, culture and training and development. But how can businesses manage the opportunity which their employee data can bring with the ethical responsibility of how, when and why it’s used?

In this podcast we talk to Charlotte Rakhit, HR Manager at Profusion about their wearable technology trial and how it’s proved useful in her organisation. We hear from Dr Ksenia Zheltoukhova, Research Advisor at CIPD, about the implications of wearable tech and employee data for the HR profession. And we chat with Dr Richard MacKinnon, Insight Director at Future Work Centre about the opportunities for companies and ask, just because companies could use wearable technology, should they?

Could wearable technology improve your HR strategies? Join in the discussion on Twitter @CIPD using the hashtag #cipdpodcasts.

View the full podcast transcript

Charlotte Rakhit: I'm Charlotte Rakhit and I'm the HR manager for a company called Profusion. We are a data science consultancy.

Philippa Lamb: Okay so you’re all about data collection and strategy and analytics and what to do with

CR: Correct yes.

PL: And you did a trial of wearable tech in your own organisation.

CR: We did yes.

PL: Tell me how that worked.

CR: So one of our data scientists decided that he'd like to do this. We asked for volunteers, probably in the end about 65%, 70% of the employees took part to do what was basically a ten day pilot.

PL: So this is 30, 40 people wearing this kit for ten days.

CR: Yeah for ten days, 24 hours a day.

PL: And you measured an incredible array of metrics didn’t you?

CR: We did. Something like 170.

PL: What sorts of things?

CR: All sorts of things ranging from people’s general demographics through to their emotions, their stress levels, calories burnt, where they were, what they were doing, how they felt and their emotions.

PL: And you did all this with a fitbit?

CR: So it was a combination of the data from the fitbit and a questionnaire which they filled out.

PL: And what did you get from this?

CR: An awful lot of data.

PL: Yeah! Wearable tech, everyone’s talking about it. Millions of people already use it. So what’s all the excitement about?

Ksenia Zheltoukhova: Wearable technologies first and foremost is a source of data. It’s a method if you like, a tool for collecting data. I think the kind of obsession is probably the wrong word to use but excitement with data is something that we’ve observed over the past few years but for me the main question is what do you do with this data?

PL: Ksenia Zheltoukhova is research adviser at the CIPD.

KZ: I think a useful analogy here is the employee engagement service that have been going for some years, a decade at least, and organisations are currently sitting on loads of self-reported data, so employees expressing their opinions on what they desire in the workplace, what makes them happy in their jobs, but I would say only a few companies actually have done anything about that data because the levels of employee engagement are still fairly low.

PL: Do you use wearable tech?

Dr Richard MacKinnon: I do but I'm a geek, self-confessed geek.

PL: Dr Richard MacKinnon might be a geek but he puts it to good use. He's Insight Director at the Future Work Centre which does research into work and psychology and he's been looking at the pros and cons of wearable tech for employers.

RM: At a general level employers could learn a lot more about the wellbeing of their employees. They could learn a lot more about where they are, how much they’re moving and they could learn about things like stress. They could also learn about how people are learning through the use of virtual reality or augmented reality technologies, how much time they’re spending on their learning and so on. So at this stage there are lots of opportunities for them to learn about the employees, if they’re using this technology. I think the other question is what would they do with that data.

PL: This is a recurring question. So what did Charlotte do with her information glut at Profusion?

CR: We learnt that if you’re more stressed you’re likely to move less, so you’re more likely to become quiet and still if you’re stressed. One of the other things that I really picked up on was that people really enjoyed learning about themselves and actually having that opportunity to live a healthier life because it kind of motivated them. I kind of picked up on that and decided that actually one of the things that I wanted to do as a business was create a wellbeing strategy basically. Probably the most important thing I introduced was actually a new benefit which was an employee cash plan which has got access to counselling and having health screens, you've probably come across them. The basis for introducing that was the fact that we’d done this study and we felt like these were things that we could really give to our employees.

PL: And are people taking it up?

CR: Yeah. It’s got like 100% take-up.

PL: But there’s always more than one way of slicing up the data. So leaping to firm conclusions can be a mistake.

KZ: A useful example here is employee turnover. This is the type of data that many organisations have today and they will be able to comment on the trends of whether their turnover is going up or down. But what do low attrition rates really mean? Does it mean that you're really good at attracting and retaining your employees? Or does it mean that your employees can't find jobs anywhere else – they’re not employable? The same with the data that comes from wearable technology. If you notice that your people are taking a lot of breaks does it mean that they are not working hard enough or does it mean that they are really good at work/life balance and they’re managing their working day more efficiently? So it is really about interpretation and practitioners who are able to use the data effectively will certainly benefit from that.

PL: Yes because as you say the data is by no means as clear as it might appear, measuring people’s steps suggests they’re busily rushing around doing things but what are they doing? And are they? And are these good measures?

KZ: Exactly and I think work that we’re doing in our Valuing your Talent research is a useful tool for practitioners to use. What it does is it allows us to have a thoughtful approach to the types of data you collect but also about the framework, so you externalise that data. So what are the outcomes you’re interested in? What are the fundamental benefits for the organisation, for the employees, for the customer, for the society even, that you would like to derive with your work activity? And do you collect adequate data to ensure that that value chain is really working.

PL: Fitbits, virtual reality. Smartphones, there's a lot on offer. For some this all plays into deep fears about living in a surveillance society but the fact is many of us are already collecting and making data about ourselves public without even realising it.

RM: I would argue that the vast majority of the population underestimate how much data they’re giving away on a daily basis – through the use of loyalty cards, social media. You know, this is an extension of that but I think it’s one that needs more attention because it’s about the employment relationship. And that's very big for the majority of people who work. It could, arguably, change the balance of that relationship, in both parties eyes.

PL: Yes it depends how far it’s pushed doesn’t it? I came across organisations monitoring sound waves in their employees’ voices apparently for stress.

RM: Mm.

PL: But it does sound a bit like spying doesn’t it?

RM: I mean if you didn’t know that was happening that's quite a difficult one. If you knew that was happening what we might see is the Hawthorn Effect, people would change their behaviour because they know they’re being monitored and that's no longer an accurate measure. If you're told, we’re going to be measuring your productivity, what will people do? They’ll change to look more productive and therefore you’re not measuring productivity you’re measuring what people do while they’re being monitored. And that throws the whole data gathering exercise into doubt.

PL: Studies suggest that in any workforce there will typically be about a third of employees who are enthusiastic about this sort of data collection, a third who are ambivalent and a third who really dislike the idea. Did you get any outright pushback from anyone?

CR: There were people that didn’t want to take part.

PL: Were there people who were dubious about the idea of it?

CR: I mean personally I didn’t partake in the study.

PL: Did you not? Why not?

CR: I don't know. I think I was one of them in the camp of, oh I'm not sure I want to report on my emotions, but I think if we do it again I will.

PL: Yes so as an HR there's quite a lot of front end work isn’t there to introduce even a small scale, short-lived programme like this, mainly I'm guessing around conversations?

CR: Yes and that is the most important thing and it’s what you need to do to make these kind of programmes successful is you need to communicate what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and why it’s going to be for the good of the employee. And I think that's the really kind of critical bit.

PL: And the limits of the data usage presumably because obviously in other organisations, in other countries, particularly the States lots of issues around where does this data then go. Does it follow me around from job to job, who has access to it, how will it be crunched? All that sort of stuff. So ring fencing the kind of limits of your current project.

CR: Yes so people knew that we were using it just for this purpose and people trust us and we’ve built a culture on kind of honesty and transparency and people trust us. If you don’t trust the people that are doing this for you/on you then that is potentially a problem.

PL: So far I'm left wondering why would employees agree to this?

RM: Well why would they say yes is a really interesting question because one of the phenomena that's been studied over the last few years is precisely that and it might be that employees say yes because their employer asks. It’s not a partnership of equals. The employer is paying them every month so it might be a sense that they feel there's reciprocity going on: if you give me this fitness tracker I need to say yes and then I need to do something else because I fear the consequences if I say no.

PL: And this is why one European government has already banned organisations from even asking employees to wear tech.

RM: The Dutch Data Protection Commissioner has already come out and said that organisations shouldn’t offer wearables because it’s an imposition.

PL: Shouldn’t even offer them?

RM: Well if you offer it they’ll feel they need to do something in return.

PL: I was going to say what do you think about that, that seems quite harsh?

RM: I'm not a fan of one size fits all solutions. When an organisation says, “We’re all going to do this,” or all not going to do this, you lose the diversity of your workforce, you’re not thinking about the groups that might benefit or might be hampered. The benefits for employees of using this technology are that it might make them more mindful about how active they are, if it gives them feedback, if it gives them actionable feedback. It can give them an insight into how their time is spent. It can give them an insight into health metrics that the average person wouldn’t have access to. Of course if they get this information they need to be able to a) understand it and b) act on it. And I think what maybe front of mind for them is privacy. What’s being done with this data? And what are the consequences if I'm not moving around, if I don’t look healthy to my employer?

PL: There has been some pushback in certain workplaces from employees about this, unsurprisingly journalists they’re particularly reluctant to do it, I think the Telegraph instituted some monitors on journalists’ desks which they were told about energy efficiency, about making the building more energy efficient. There was pushback there, they felt that they were being monitored.

RM: A culture of some organisations is such that people clock on and clock off and therefore their employer knows when they arrived and when they left, I think this is a significant step beyond that kind of monitoring because it’s at the individual level, about their physical movements for example and that can feel very ‘Big Brother’. And so if an organisation wants to do this my suggestion would be take a step back and ask why do we want to do this? What are the anticipated benefits to this? And what might happen if we get this wrong? So not simply deploy the technology and hope for the best.

PL: Does the idea of, I mean this sort of monitoring at its very basic level it strikes me it plays a bit into presenteeism doesn’t it? I mean monitoring how much someone is at their desk this is a very old fashioned measure isn’t it? What are they doing at their desk?

RM: Absolutely and productivity is very difficult to measure. So it could be a proxy for productivity: who’s here and when are they here? If people perceive that being tied to some kind of performance measure well I think it’s inevitable that they’ll spend more time there but will they be working or might it drive some unhealthy competition? And you can have that when you’re monitoring movement and steps. You could have people feeling I want to beat my own target from yesterday. That's fine. But if there's a league table and everyone’s doing things to increase their step count rather than focusing on the job at hand that's not really helpful to the organisation. Imagine working in a sector where there's a lot of problems and there's the risk of redundancies how might that be interpreted by the workforce? If I don’t move enough might I lose my job or might I go on a list?

PL: On a list.

RM: Yeah exactly.

PL: So there can be unintended consequences and we need to examine some of the other ethical questions too.

KZ: If we look at the possible rights and responsibilities of employers and employees in this particular context one thing or one lens we can consider is individual wellbeing in its broadest sense. So the question is should employers ensure that the workplace is safe, at its minimum? And that's all. That's where the responsibility stops. Or is it really in their interest to ensure that employees are happy at work and they achieve what we call life satisfaction? The next question is well sometimes people want things that are actually bad for them. So people sometimes want to smoke or they want to eat unhealthy foods is it really the employer’s business to tell them that that's unhealthy?

PL: Over in the States where private health insurance is the norm insurers are starting to bundle up this kit with their schemes and it’s a short step from there to employers becoming obliged to put it to use if they want to keep their insurance premiums affordable.

RM: We have had examples here of health insurers offering discounts if you go to the gym and you go to the gym a certain number of times per month and that's a proxy for exercise, but what are you doing when you’re at the gym? You’re going to the gym you might be simply sitting in a Jacuzzi for an hour. But you can see the logic behind it but I would suggest that it’s faulty logic that if you do this we’ll give you this in return. Or what are you going to do? What is the thing that you’re doing? And do we know, is there evidence that this wearable tech leads to improved health, wellbeing and productivity? Not really. In fact some of the research within the last few years has pointed to only a sub-section of society benefits from this health-related wearable technology and it’s those people who have the time and the disposable income to be healthier anyway.

PL: So what sort of questions should management and HRs be asking themselves about this?

KZ: Well we’ve already published the report that presents different lenses for ethical decision-making that employers and managers can use to think through some of these issues.

PL: This is the CIPD’s report Ethical Decision Making: Eight Perspectives on Workplace Dilemmas.

KZ: I’d like to pre-warn that the report doesn’t give any answers it’s simply a tool for asking yourself these questions. But as you say the questions are really important. So one of the questions, what is it that you are trying to achieve, what is your definition of wellbeing, what are the ultimate types of value you are deriving in your organisation? Another question could be about rights. So what are the fundamental rights that you are trying to protect here? What are the fundamental human rights perhaps that an individual has in the workplace? And do they have this right for autonomy and self-determination for deciding themselves what's good for them? And the final question I’d say that would be relevant here is the one on voice, so how much say should employees have in the rules, if you like, of the workplace, in what is okay and not okay in the workplace? How much should they be involved in determining how exactly they would become productive?

PL: So thinking about the data you gather about yourself, using your wearable tech, would you be happy to share it with a boss?

RM: I would, I would, because we’re a smallish team, there's high trust, there's a lot of transparency and it’s a very flat organisation. So definitely I would. If I was asked that in previous employment, no, no I wouldn’t because it was a very different culture, measures of productivity were different and there were different drivers. And I think that's the core question to ask people. The technology is there should we be using it? Well just because it’s there no. We should be using it with intent.

KZ: I think there is sometimes an assumption that simply because there is a trend or something is happening it’s inevitable but for me there is always a place for individual decision-making, there is always personal judgement that you have to apply and what’s right for you and for your company and for your context and not just what everyone else is doing.

RM: I would ask an organisation who's planning to introduce this what is the problem you’re trying to solve? What is it that you really think you can achieve with this technology? Just because you can buy a couple of hundred step counters to give to your employees you could also buy them all a book about fitness, you could also buy them all an hour of health coaching. What is it you think this technology will give you that won't be detracted from by the negative consequences of the perceptions of the employees?

PL: Wearable tech is full of possibilities but it’s easy to get swept up by that particular wave before you've really looked at all the potential ethical pitfalls. Ksenia and Richard’s advice – take a long hard look before you dive in. That Valuing your Talent report that Ksenia mentioned and lots of other useful tools are all waiting for you at valuingyourtalent.com. She also mentioned the report Ethical Decision Making Eight Perspectives on Workplace Dilemmas and you'll find the link to it on the podcast homepage too. Thanks for listening.

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