Will Wearables In The Office Make Work More Productive?


Art Markman

October 1, 2014

With the introduction of the Apple Watch, wearables are becoming more mainstream. Devices that measure where people are and get information about their level of activity are a tempting tool for managers. If we could measure what people are doing in the workplace, then surely we can make them more productive.

The danger with any tool, of course, is that your measurements ultimately determine what you try to optimize, and that has long-term consequences.

Do Wearables Have The Potential To Make People More Productive?

If they are used in the most obvious way, then wearables will probably hurt more than they help.

On the positive side, several studies demonstrate that people tend to be more honest when they think they are being watched than when they think they are alone. To the extent that wearables create a workplace in which everyone is being watched to some degree, that could create more honest behavior overall.

That said, the most obvious things for companies to measure are where people are and how much time they are spending on various tasks in the workplace. We already know some of the dangers of trying to optimize the time that people are spending on tasks.

For example, call centers often measure the amount of time that employees spend dealing with customer problems. When employees have to minimize the length of calls, they do not do a good job of solving customer problems. The employees find it stressful, and the customers do not feel that they received good service. Companies that focus on maximizing customer satisfaction rather than minimizing time and effort spent are more successful in the long run.

You Can’t Measure Creativity

In addition, many of the most important jobs in any company require some degree of creativity. It is hard to legislate creativity. Instead, insights often come when people are doing things that look like they are off-task. Conversations with coworkers in the break room can lead to insights about difficult problems.

Indeed, the most innovative people in most companies are low on the personality dimension of conscientiousness. In many situations, those people do not look like they are getting work done, but they are often working through bigger problems that can ultimately lead to great breakthroughs.

Trying to keep everyone’s nose to the grindstone may churn out more routine work in the short-term, but it will stifle innovation in the long-term.

And, of course, most people want a little autonomy in the workplace. It’s not good for morale when everyone feels like “big brother” is watching their every move. It is valuable for people’s long-term engagement in the workplace for people to feel like their judgment is valued.

Can Wearables At Work Ever Work?

There are also a lot of physiological measurements that are related to emotional responses that are not that hard to measure (though current technology does not get at them). If you measure heart rate and galvanic skin response (moment-by-moment changes in the conductivity of the skin) you can estimate how aroused people are at work.

That is a measure of the strength of the emotional experiences people are having. If you measure the muscles that the face uses to smile, you can measure small changes in positive feeling. If you measure the muscles in the face used to frown, you can measure small changes in negative feeling.

Leaving aside some of the technical hurdles for now, it would interesting for people to be able to keep track of the degree of positive and negative feeling they are having in a day.

Managers could get employees to review their day and focus on what was making them feel very good or very bad. In that way, managers could identify what is going well and what is going less well in the workplace without having to wait for small problems to become big ones.

As with any technology, though, it is important to start with the question of what you are hoping to accomplish. Do you want a happier workplace? One where people work faster? One where people are more innovative? Only after answering these questions can you begin to see how the next generation of wearables can provide data that might help you to accomplish these goals.

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