The tracking of employee location, fitness and mood is on the rise. How can we ensure new tools such as big data and artificial intelligence are a force for good?
Wherever humans go, we leave little trails of data behind us. There are the digital bits – Facebook profiles, mailing lists, search histories – and there is the treasure trove our bodies can produce. Smart watches can pick up changes in skin conductivity that indicate how stressed you are, and sleep trackers can monitor how much you’re moving at night, to determine whether you’ve had the recommended eight hours’ kip. And, increasingly, we’re seeing wearables move out of the home and into the workplace.
In 2015, BP in North America distributed 24,500 fitness trackers to employees and their partners, and offered staff money off their health insurance if they met their exercise goals. Other companies, including the Bank of America, Kimberly-Clark, Time Warner and Target are also offering their employees similar trackers.
But workplace wearables are about much more than fitness alone. At a factory in Hangzhou, China, employees have been given helmets with embedded sensorsthat allegedly monitor brainwaves and can detect when employees are feeling angry or depressed. In Amsterdam, financial traders experimented with a bracelet that measures emotions through electrodermal activity, using light patterns and colours to indicate when they are in a heightened emotional state. The idea is that if people are more aware of their feelings, they are more likely to rethink their decisions and less likely to act recklessly.
But how do we, as humans, feel about all this data gathering? “For a long time, people looked at wearables as if they might be a big brother-type scenario, to do with surveillance within the organisation,” says Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. “But now they’re viewed more as an opportunity to gather evidence to substantiate things that are going on in the workplace.”
There’s also the argument that cold data can provide an unbiased picture of how people are feeling and why they might be acting in a certain way. “If an employee is really stressed, they’re unlikely to report that to their employers for fear that it’ll be seen as a projection of weakness,” says Brauer. “What wearables do is provide evidence-based data that’s accurate and therefore indicative of what’s going on.”
However, there are fears that companies might use wearables to keep tabs on employees. In January, Amazon was granted a patent on a wristband that could pinpoint the location of warehouse employees and buzz if they were about to place an item in the wrong section. The online retailer has also used tracking technology to make sure its warehouse employees don’t fall below a certain level of productivity.
It’s not just warehouse employees who are subjected to digital surveillance – there is a whole industry that produces software to keep an eye on office workers. There are programmes that track keystrokes and cross-reference those against screenshots automatically grabbed from employees’ screens to make sure they’re working. In January 2016, the Daily Telegraph removed sensors it had installed that used heat and motion detection to monitor whether people were at their desks.
In other professions, however, keeping track of employees can be a matter of life or death. Australian company Seeing Machines develops computer vision systems that can recognise when a driver is distracted or about to fall asleep at the wheel. Currently, the eye-tracking system is used to detect the fatigue levels of truck drivers, pilots, train drivers and people who operate heavy machinery.
But looking after employees’ physical safety is just part of the picture. Increasingly, companies are placing more of an emphasis on their workers’ mental health, says Cate Murden, founder of Push Mind and Body, a corporate wellness firm based in the UK that helps large businesses energise their teams and keep them in peak physical and mental condition. “Most of the time in a company, people operate at around 60-70% of their capacity,” she says. The idea is that if people feel better, they’ll perform better too.
Even though wellness regimes might add to company productivity in the long run, Murden says it’s important that companies don’t run staff ragged. “We’re not just computers, you can’t just switch us on and expect us to keep going and going,” she says. “But when you support a team properly and they’re working to their absolute optimum, that’s when they’ll flourish.”
For Murden, bringing a workforce up to its full potential can involve a broad range of approaches. Sometimes Push Mind and Body prescribes Beyoncé dance classes, or sets up workshops that help people learn how to use stress to their advantage. Murden also teaches employees how to prep their meals for the working week, or recommends one-on-one psychotherapy sessions.
In the four years since she started her company, Murden has seen a dramatic change in the way businesses think about their employees. Previously, many would only respond to stress when it reached crisis point, but, increasingly, employers are providing support before it becomes a serious issue. And getting things right can pay dividends. One large media company Murden worked with managed to cut its employee turnover rate from 30% to 5% by putting in place a company-wide wellness regime.
Part of the problem with the modern workplace is that it can be difficult for people to manage their workloads, says Chintan Patel, chief technologist at Cisco UK and Ireland. For all the benefits they bring, the ubiquity of smartphones and laptops means that the line between work and home is more blurred than ever before. “If I can access something from my mobile device, does that mean I’m contactable 24 hours a day and need to be responding all the time?” he asks.
But instead of turning us into drones, there is the possibility that technology could eventually help to make us feel a little more human at work. Brauer says that it might not be such a bad thing if the most repetitive parts of our jobs do become automated, because this would free up our time and energy to do things that humans are really good at.
Some artificial intelligence (AI) systems can already detect from a photograph whether a mole or freckle is cancerous faster than dermatologists. This could be good news for doctors and patients, Brauer says. “They can reinvest that time in professional development, research, or spending more time with their families or patients.”
“The technology that’s coming is offering us rehumanising potential,” Brauer says, as long as companies use it as an opportunity to retrain their employees and increase their skills, rather than letting it displace human workers altogether. Patel agrees. With Cisco he’s already thinking about how he can use AI to replace the most repetitive parts of his employees’ days and give them more time to get on with work that excites them, or to concentrate on self-development.
We’re already seeing AI tools start to trickle into the mainstream. Smart compose features, which cut down on the need for repetitive typing within emails, are becoming a reality. Virtual personal assistants are becoming more useful – and less of a novelty – with every update. Recently, Google even showcased its assistant booking a hair appointment over the phone.
The internet giant reckons voice assistants will soon go the way of wearables and make the shift from being a device we’re used to using in our homes, to one that is commonplace in the office too.
As long as this technology is used to empower rather than oppress workers, Brauer is optimistic about the future of the workplace. In the not-too-distant future, many of us will be part of augmented workforces in which people work alongside machines and AI systems that help achieve more with our time, while allowing us to break free from the most mind-numbing parts of our jobs. Technology, it seems, might be just what we need to stop us turning into robots after all.