Does the Connected Workforce Breach Employee Privacy?

Wearables will make it infinitely easier for companies to track employees. But without transparency, that will foster suspicion.

Wearables are much more than a consumer fad. They are a natural step in the digital transformation of the workplace, with the potential to drive significant productivity and efficiency gains for organizations that can cleverly take advantage of them. But if they aren't implemented thoughtfully, they also have the potential to antagonize employees who feel such devices are being deployed to breach their privacy.

According to research firm ABI Research, the enterprise wearables market is expected to reach $18 billion by 2019, with the North American region foreseen as the largest market, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 39% over the next five years. As wearables become more widely accepted by consumers, organizations are starting to see how the convergence of mobile, cloud, data and social can enhance operations to create a more collaborative, connected workforce. The problem is that what organizations see isn't always what their employees see.

At the heart of the connected workforce is employee measurability, offering firms the opportunity to enhance real-time decision-making through the application of non-intrusive, wearable devices that integrate with corporate databases, wireless systems and sensors to continuously track employee location and activity. Safety is also a common driver (in a hazardous environment, it makes sense to be able to track employee movements at all times, and respond quickly to any incidents), but another factor is resource allocation. If an oil company discovers an issue on a remote rig, the common solution is to scramble a task force of people to investigate. With a more connected workforce, in-built equipment sensors linked to wearable technology can immediately alert the most skilled employee to the issue before it becomes a problem. The vision is an Internet of things and people, and the potential cost savings are huge.

That's the organizations' viewpoint, but if wearables aren't deployed with care and sensitivity, employees can see them as a sinister intrusion of their privacy. Rosabeth Moss Kanter first coined the term "Information Panopticon" to describe the potential dangers of living in an Orwellian world full of interconnected devices. While interconnected devices can be beneficial, the accidental or deliberate misuse of the information they make available could be damaging.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with enhancing employee measurability, but privacy watchers maintain that organizations should be careful what they measure. If it is fine to track employees' movements around the warehouse, is it also fine to continue tracking those employees during their lunch break? Possibly -- if safety is the chief concern -- but can employees trust that the data won't be used for other purposes not entirely in their best interests?

There are many guidelines organizations need to follow to ensure they don't overstep the mark. The key to effective behavior tracking is ensuring that the data collected is analyzed in the context of the person you're measuring and aligned with the company's strategic objectives. If one employee travels a greater distance in the working day than another, what does that mean? What about sick days -- how do you reasonably compare one employee to another? How do you compare use of the corporate intranet, or a mobile phone bill -- what does particularly high usage mean? What is high usage?

Companies also need to be careful how the data is used. If they're monitoring an employee's health (ostensibly as an employee benefit), is it OK for this data to be used to decide which employees should be employed in certain roles? Is it acceptable to withhold a promotion based on general fitness?

If they want to ensure that the data collected really improves performance, organizations should also be cautious of the way in which they recognize and react to patterns. On a trading floor, the theory might be that the more stressed traders are, the less likely they are to make good investments. Cortisone sensors may highlight these traders, but won't necessarily be able to distinguish between those traders who make better decisions when the cortisone is flowing and those who don't.

Arguably, the connected workforce is an extension of the balanced scorecard system, developed in 1990 by Robert Kaplan. The balanced scorecard measures the links between human inputs and operational processes in a way that helps the organization achieve its strategic objectives. The more companies know about the real performance and behavior of employees, thought Kaplan, the closer they can get toward achieving their most important goals.

As a strategic tool, the balanced scorecard was ahead of its time -- critics at the time suggested it suffered from a lack of actionable data. But through wearable technology, the opportunity exists to improve Kaplan's scorecard, not only to enhance company performance but also employee engagement. The connected workforce enables each and every employee action to be measured, which means that not only can the organization assess the real impact of its human resources on strategy execution, but it can also offer individual employees insight into their own impact. The more aware employees are of their own contributions, the more empowered they will be, which naturally enhances their effectiveness and loyalty. To this end, the connected workforce will focus on employee engagement rather than command and control -- and herein lies the greatest potential for a return on investment.

Organizations are at a crossroads. How they handle the culture of employee connectivity will ultimately have a sizable impact on how effective the technology is. Those organizations that adopt a top-down approach will be viewed by employees as secretive and controlling, greatly diminishing the potential return. To obtain the full benefits of a more connected workforce, they need to collaborate fully with employees, providing transparency and a degree of freedom for individuals to choose how their data is used.

Fernando Alvarez is senior vice president and mobile solutions global service line leader at Capgemini Group.

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

This story, "Does the Connected Workforce Breach Employee Privacy?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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