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Google Glass returns to target wearables at work – but employers need to note privacy issues

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Google Glass, the Lazarus of wearable devices, will return in autumn firmly aimed at jumping on the nascent “wearable devices at work” trend. Its first incarnation obviously didn’t quite go as planned. Its problems can be neatly summarised by the coining of the word “Glasshole” to describe its users.

The latest iteration of Google Glass has much more promise because the case for wearable devices in a business environment is now readily apparent. It will join a raft of devices that could quickly become commonplace in offices and factories. As this happens, business leaders are going to face ethical and strategic challenges to maximise the value of these devices without compromising the privacy and trust of employees.

Wearable devices in a business setting follow the simple premise that the more information bosses have on how a company operates, the better informed their decisions will be. If you collect detailed data on the productivity, morale, actions and interactions of employees you should be able to institute changes that improve these factors. On the flip side, employees should be able to use wearable devices to make their jobs easier. We’ve already had a taste of this with Dubai traffic police using Google Glass to help identify traffic violations and apprehend offenders. KFC currently uses Google Glass to help with staff training. Recently, a number of medical professionals have reported that they have used wearable devices in some way to support patient care.

Such innovations show particular promise in relation to HR and recruitment. A typical wearable fitness device can track an employee’s level of activity and heart-rate. This information can be analysed and combined with other data to paint a more rounded view of their wellbeing and stress levels. Combine these data with details on what work-related activity they were undertaking, and HR can uncover practices or relationships that are detrimental to the welfare of employees.

For example, if every week during and after a particular meeting, attendees register elevated heart rates, it could suggest that meeting is stressful and/or damaging. An employer can also gain a better picture of how staff interact with one another and resources. Employees who are tethered to their desks can be quickly identified, teams that mix together, or don’t mix at all will become clear. This can provide a useful insight into practices that could be reducing productivity or indicate that particular functions, such as sales or innovation, are not covering the required miles.

Wearables also open the door to a range of new testing techniques to assess prospective employees. HR managers can provide candidates with wearable devices and undertake interviews or competency tests. The data from the device can then be analysed to reveal how the candidate copes under pressure. If a set of questions causes a spike in stress it could indicate an underlying weakness.

That’s just a very small snapshot of how wearable devices could be used. Each application naturally raises questions about how to balance the rights and privacy of employees with business benefits. A crucial component of maintaining trust is either by anonymising employee data, or if that is not possible, instructing a third-party to collect and analysing the information. There needs to be a clear buffer between the employer and employee data. 

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Workers should also have voluntary opt-in for wearables schemes, at least initially. This will help to build trust and showcase how these initiatives can benefit individual employees as well as the wider business. A compulsory wearables scheme risks treading an unclear legal line. Recently in the US, an employee sued her employer alleging that she was sacked because she deleted a tracking app that the company compelled her to use.

Employing a third-party as a buffer and working on a voluntary basis also helps to mitigate the risk of privacy breaches. Business leaders need to be very conscious of the risk to trust and confidence if they either leak personal information or misuse it. The scope for misapplication of data is quite large, especially if the company involved has little experience in managing and using it. Again, third-party advice should be sought and the HR and, ideally, legal departments needs to be involved in every major decision involved in the use of wearable data.

Wearable technology in an enterprise environment offers huge potential benefits both to businesses and to employees. However, businesses need to adopt a cautious approach by putting in adequate safeguards and processes to make doubly sure that they do not create a regime that ruins the relationship they have with their staff.

Mike Weston is CEO of data science consultancy Profusion.

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