Companies are fitting thousands of their staff with body-worn tracker devices that check how much sleep they have, how well they work with colleagues and even monitor their body language, tone of voice or emotions – often for 24 hours a day.
Supporters of the revolution in “workplace wearables” say it is creating a more productive “augmented human being”, but privacy campaigners say it is leading to a “Big Brother” society.
Employees of at least four British companies, including a major high street bank, are already carrying “sociometric badges”. The credit card-sized badges are worn around the neck and include a microphone for real-time voice analysis, a device that tracks the wearer around the workplace, a Bluetooth sensor to scan for proximity to others and an accelerometer to check physical activity. Monitoring employees’ phone calls and emails provides further data.
As an illustration of the sort of “body analytics” obtained, a hypothetical employee named Julian would be seen as active because he walks to work, but spends too much time sitting down in the office, which is a longer-term health risk. He interrupts colleagues a lot when talking; they often avoid sitting with him at lunch.
His brain pattern shows above-average stress when meeting a deadline but he has “used the monitoring devices consistently, so is considered conscientious”. He sleeps seven hours, a healthy amount, but goes to bed too late, with the biodata showing he is “not optimised” for early-morning meetings.
“By mining the data, you can actually get very detailed information on how people are communicating,” said Ben Waber, chief executive of Humanyze, which makes the badges. “It can show how physiologically aroused people are, and can make predictions about how productive and happy they are at work.”
The effect of fitness challenges is quite high — people suddenly get shamed into not taking the lift.
Waber said the tone, not the content, of conversations was recorded and only individuals got the full suite of data about themselves. Companies saw “aggregated” data on whether teams were working together effectively. Individuals had to consent to wearing the badges and 90% did, he said.
The badges are understood to be used by the consulting firm Deloitte and parts of the NHS. Waber declined to name the bank. Lloyds, HSBC, Santander and NatWest/RBS said they were not working with Humanyze. Barclays did not respond.
Chris Brauer, director of innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London, said a leading UK retailer was using the badges to train staff in “mirroring” — copying a customer’s physical mannerisms in order to build rapport. The devices monitored shopworkers’ body language and boosted sales.
In a project run by Brauer, 40 staff of the Mindshare media agency were fitted with the Lumo Back posture device, which sends a pulse to remind wearers to sit up straight, and the NeuroSky portable EEG headband, which measures brain activity and emotions. Construction and haulage companies, including Crossrail, have used EEG headgear to monitor employees for drunkenness or fatigue.
The 850 staff of Punter Southall, an actuarial and pensions consultancy, are among thousands of employees given wearable fitness trackers to monitor their physical activity and sleep patterns.
A director, John Dean, said: “We do fitness challenges once or twice a year. The effect is quite high — people suddenly get shamed into not taking the lift. They wear it 24/7 and the employer can see the data.
“We wouldn’t use them to monitor employees, although if they don’t walk very much you could potentially bring that up.” Usage was voluntary but 75%-80% of staff took part.
Brauer said the next development would be “biometric CVs”, with job applicants required to present evidence from monitoring to show they are biometrically qualified.
“The basic premise we’re working from is the augmented human being,” he said. “That will be the optimal productivity unit in the workforce.”
However, Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, said the devices risked turning humans into robots.“It is unacceptable for businesses to discriminate against staff based on the monitoring and tracking of their personality, fitness and out-of-work lifestyle,” he said.