While market acceptance of wearable technology – clothing and accessories incorporating computer and advanced electronic technologies – is on the increase, regulation and policy frameworks surrounding the use of this fast-growing technology in the workplace need to be discussed.
An online survey undertaken by advisory firm PwC revealed that, while there were clear benefits to implementing wearable technology programmes in the workplace, certain gaps remained that needed to be addressed. For instance, what happens with the collected data, and are employees aware of the implications of sharing their data?
The survey reported that 72% of employees would consider wearing a wearable device supplied by the employer if the data obtained was used to improve working conditions.
The number of workers willing to share their information with employers increased to 87% if they directly reaped certain benefits.
The survey, similar in nature to one conducted in the UK a year ago, aimed to gain insight into employees’ sentiments about “wearables” and the viability of employers supplying devices to workers for health and work-related data collection.
“Providing employees with wearable devices could be a novel and powerful way for organisations to gain a better understanding of their workforce and for them to tailor working patterns and office life to employees’ individual needs,” said PwC actuarial, risk and quants division associate director Nanie Rothman.
Speaking at a presentation of the survey in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Rothman said a wearable technology programme could lead to more “engaged and happy” employees, with an estimated 8.5% rise in productivity, as employers became more aware of their employees’ health and working conditions.
The data generated by wearable devices could be used by employers to improve employee stress levels, as well as their efficiency and work conditions. It could also be used to better manage health, wellness and healthcare costs, with companies like Discovery Vitality and Momentum Multiply already leveraging the cost benefits of wearable technology.
The survey highlighted flexible work hours, fitness incentives, lower health insurance premiums and medical scheme contributions, and free health screening or yearly health checks as some of the main benefits an employee stood to gain by strapping on a device and sharing private information.
“Many employees are still not comfortable with sharing any of their personal data with their employers, but our research shows that most people can be persuaded if they can see personal or workplace benefits,” explained PwC people and organisation leader Barry Vorster.
In exchange for the “right benefits”, the survey showed that workers would be willing to part with specific data such as marital status, number of children, frequency of physical exercise, average blood pressure and average heart rate, as well as travel duration to and from – and time of arrival and departure – from work.
However, concerns emerged over the security and privacy of the shared information, as well as the potential misuse of the obtained data, with 20% of respondents saying they did not trust that their employer would not use the information against them or that they would use it for the workers’ benefit.
Rothman reiterated that companies exploring wearable device-based health and wellness programmes could attract employee buy-in with suitable incentives and the implementation of proper policies to ensure the privacy of the information.
“The key to success for both organisations and their employees will be overcoming trust barriers by having clear processes for acquiring, using and sharing the data securely and responsibly,” she explained.
A clear data policy, outlining how data was collected, how it was used and what value it brought, was required.
Vorster added that, with the adoption of wearable technology happening “faster than we think”, these policy discussions needed to get under way urgently.
He noted that the matter of data ownership needed to be addressed and clarified, as 61% of respondents asserted that they had legal ownership of the data produced by their smartphone and other devices, while 17% believed that the online service providers they used, such as Google and Facebook, had claim to ownership.
Nine per cent said they did not know where ownership of the accumulated data would lie.
The Protection of Personal Information Act (Popi), signed into law in 2013, considered an “individual to be the owner of their personal information”, providing a citizen protection rights.
The obtained information could only obtained with valid reasons by a third party, who would need to be transparent about how the data would be used. Further, this information could only be shared with the individual’s consent.
The purpose of Popi, which still required a commencement date to be set by President Jacob Zuma, aimed to hold companies responsible for any abuse or compromised information when collecting, analysing, processing and sharing personal information.
The survey questioned 2 283 respondents – 51% of whom were between 25 and 34 years of age – across South Africa during the final quarter of 2015.