Does Wearable Technology Beget Orwellian Workplace?


Since Barney Rubble started pounding large rocks into smaller ones, employers have been trying to find ways to raise productivity and lower costs.

In the early 1900s, an engineer named Frederick Taylor wrote a monograph called The Principles of Scientific Management, in which he urged business owners to apply scientific methods to factory processes and other types of work in order to secure the "maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee."

Taylorism spawned its own industry and morphed into what became a well-known character of derision in films of the 1940s and 1950s, the efficiency expert, with his stopwatch and eagle-eyed observation of employees.

Nonetheless, efforts to increase efficiency and possibly improve the work experience for employees didn’t fade away. Fast forward to the 21st century, and we’ve gone beyond observers with stopwatches to a tech-fueled bonanza of data gathering and measurement tools.

A number of companies, including Volometrix (now part of Microsoft) and Humanyze are now helping employers evaluate their workflows, employee interactions, and even their workspaces using "people analytics."

Humanyze offers a pair of platforms for collecting data. The first is a digital platform that brings together e-mail, calendars, chat and location data to help employers evaluate their companywide communications. The second involves Sociometric® badges that are worn by each employee, recording data such as movement and even "speaking patterns."

Humanyze’s badge can track physical activities in real time, capture "nonlinguistic social signals such as interest and excitement" without recording actual words, locate wearers and their proximity to other wearers, and communicate with other electronic devices.

These new tools enable the collection and analysis of more and different types of data than ever before. Proponents of people analytics also tout the fact that the information is unfiltered and objective.

According to Humanyze, its technology gleans information that "can be leveraged to enhance teamwork and employee engagement, improve processes, and plan for growth."

Is this all for the greater good, or an Orwellian form of surveillance? Some people will definitely flinch at the idea of wearing badges that track so much of what they do. But then again, electronic monitoring of computer keystrokes and workplace internet usage also seemed intrusive when they were first introduced.

The companies promoting people analytics downplay concerns over employee pushback, saying once workers realize their data aren’t being used in a punitive way, they get used to this new type of tech fairly quickly.

At the dawn of another new year, we’ve reached yet another new frontier. And one certainty at this juncture is that innovation and change will continue to accelerate at a pace we’ve never seen before.

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