Workplace wearables: Your boss knows when you've had a good night's sleep?

Story highlights

  • What effect will wearables have in the workplace?
  • Dr Chris Brauer's team has found some "startling" results
  • Productivity of those wearing wearables increased by 8.5%
  • Job satisfaction increased by 3.5% but alertness fell by 9%

We know how wearable tech can enhance our fitness lives; some of us use it to track our diets and even record our daily entertainment choices; but there's evidence that its most significant application is yet to come: the workplace.

The Human Cloud at Work is an experimental design research collaboration between the Institute of Management Studies (IMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London and Rackspace, the open cloud company -- assessing the impact of wearable technologies on productivity and performance in the workplace.

During a month-long preliminary study participants were equipped with three devices: the GENEActiv high-velocity accelerometer wristband, which measures movement and activity; the NeuroSky Mindwave portable biosensor EEG, which monitors brain activity; and the LUMOback posture and activity coach.

Dr Chris Brauer

Initial results show that productivity of those using the wearable tech increased by 8.5% and job satisfaction by 3.5%. We're in the process of increasing our sample size and study duration to assess the longer-term implications of these findings.

However, while it'll be interesting to see how individual workers harness wearable tech to improve their performance, its the organizations themselves that -- in my view -- stand to benefit most if the technology is broadly adopted in the workplace.

Why? It's all about the data.

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Consider this: using just machine data gathered from the three wearable devices it's possible to develop rich behavioral and lifestyle profiles of individuals and/or employees. How might an employer use this information to make better company decisions?

Let's look at "Chloe", a randomly selected and anonymized participant in our research. Using her wearable device data we learn her mid-sleep time is 3:45am, in the later quartile suggesting she is in her 20s.

In sleep profiling she is an Owl, not a Lark, with an active social life but not a party animal. Chloe is a conscientious individual, physically active but not a gym bunny, she lives close to work with a short commute of 90 minutes from waking, has no children, above average long daytime sedentary periods indicating potential future health risk, below average focus/concentration levels, and at her most productive on days when she has evening social events planned with friends.

This behavioral data from her wearables can empower Chloe. She can develop a biometric CV and demand a work environment be optimized for her from environmental design to working hours. She can schedule her big pitch meetings on afternoons when she knows she will be most productive. And she can choose a job that aligns with her lifestyle, health and well being aspirations, and productivity and performance expectations.

Of course organizations implementing software and cloud innovations can harness the power of the data as well. Some employers could have real-time executive dashboard resource allocation systems that will recommend a CEO assign Chloe to a big pitch meeting that afternoon instead of Peter because Peter is in the midst of a particularly poor productivity cycle and Chole had way above average sleep quality the night before and her sleep quality is strongly and positively correlated with her job performance.

And if this decision wins the contract, can you blame them? They are, after-all, paying the salaries of Chloe and Peter to deliver results at work. Peter isn't put under undue pressure to perform when he has other priorities and considerations in his life and Chloe is only asked to step-up when she is optimally conditioned to perform at her highest level.

This is a particularly rosy interpretation of how this data will be used. Around the world, as in so many areas of emerging technology, regulatory and policy frameworks are struggling to adapt to the rapid emergence of wearables in the workplace. Handling behavioral data like that used to profile Chloe entail responsibilities that will lie with self-regulating organizations who will need to work within a social contract to collect and use this type of data sensitively and appropriately.

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