The Looming Showdown: Privacy, Wellness and Productivity

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Oct 12, 2017

Shortly after purchasing my first Fitbit, I noticed a change in my airport travel routine. Instead of looking for moving sidewalks or a comfy seat, I walked all over the airport during layovers for no reason other than to amass steps tracked by my new wearable. On one occasion, I arrived at an airport only to realize my Fitbit was not charged. I promptly took a seat – I wasn’t going to walk if I didn’t get credit for it!

The development of new technology, the ability to capture enormous amounts of data, and the advent of wellness programs are leading us down a path that professional athletes have taken for years: the pursuit of maximal performance and potential.

Athletes Rely On Wearables

Athletes of all types have been utilizing wearable technology for longer than the mass public, collecting data which is analyzed to identify opportunities for improvement. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Mounir Zok, director of technology and innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee, went as far as to suggest that wearable technology was central to Team USA’s success at last summer’s Olympic Games.

“We have taken the athlete over the past five, six years outside of the standardized lab,” Zok said. “An athlete’s performance can now be tracked in his or her natural environment, drastically increasing the applicability and amount of the data.”

In fact, there are companies who are betting big on the need to track anything and everything related to individuals participating in competitive sports. While Cerner is best known for their EMR (electronic medical record) used in healthcare organizations across the globe, their HealtheAthlete offering enables over 50 NCAA teams and health systems with sports medicine outreach programs to track their athletes in the same way that hospitals track their patients.

Integrating Multiple Data

As the larger healthcare industry shifts its focus from treating illness to preventing it, athletic trainers are looking to technology to prevent injury and improve performance. This includes the collection of “lifestyle data,” such as nutritional intake, sleep patterns and stress levels. Per Nate Hogan, General Manager of Cerner’s HealtheAthlete business, the biggest challenge with wearables is the accuracy of the data – wearables alone fail to collect critical information that can only be obtained the old-fashioned way, by asking the individual, “How does your shoulder feel”?

This illustrates the importance of capturing information related to an individual’s behavioral DNA as well as their biometric data. Consider that the Brooklyn Nets recently entered into a partnership with Infor to use an innovative “Talent Science” tool to evaluate cognitive, cultural, and behavioral characteristics that may have an impact on individual and team performance. This combination of real-time data and predictive behavioral analytics allows teams to personalize training plans for each individual athlete – accounting for the fact that what works for one person may have little impact on another.

Dawn of the Corporate Athlete?

By emulating athletics, corporate institutions have the potential to impact two critical areas in the workplace: productivity and employee engagement, an important consideration given both areas have been relatively stagnant in the U.S. in recent years.

It is predicted that by 2020, more than 75 million wearables will permeate the workplace and 2 million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment. If we track the same lifestyle data that could be pulled from a wearable device, we could get a better understanding of potential contributors (and inhibitors) of individual performance. For example, does an extra hour of sleep have a direct correlation to better work performance?

For years corporations have rolled out a wide variety of wellness programs, only to struggle when it came time to tie those activities to tangible results. That is starting to change. For example, a recent study of workers who participated in an employer-sponsored health program increased their productivity by an average of 4% over the following year, with the greatest improvement coming from those whose health showed notable improvement (an almost 11% productivity jump). Additionally, a recent Forrester Research report predicts that by 2025, nearly 14.4 million U.S. workers will wear smart glasses. These virtual and augmented reality technologies allow people to “practice” a new skill without risk (think of a doctor trying a new surgical technique, for instance), or to collaborate with colleagues half-way across the world.

While not exactly a wearable, even your phone has the potential to use RTLS (real-time location services) to handle administrative tasks for you at work. Think about the explosive growth in home health, where a nurse travels to patient’s home throughout the day. By connecting location services with time-keeping and expense systems, the time a nurse spends at each patient’s home and the miles travelled to get there could be submitted to the employer without even lifting a finger. Soon we will be able to say goodbye to punching clocks and exasperating expense reports!

Digital Assistants and Chat Bots

The workplace is also beginning to experiment with digital assistants and chat bots that use NLP (natural language processing) to respond to employee questions and requests. In reality, you have probably already interacted with a chat bot online and assumed it was a human. On the other hand, technology companies are developing “Digital Managers” that allow their systems to monitor compliance and process data so that human managers are freed up to focus on relationship building and high-value activity.

Soon we may see “Digital Coaches” in the workplace making proactive recommendations to managers and employees alike based on the aggregation of this data. The productivity implications are truly palpable.

But, what about privacy?

The public debate about privacy implications of wearables is equally apparent (and admittedly ominous). Should your employer have access to your sleep patterns or be able to track how much time you spend in the bathroom? The New England Patriots recently bought their own two planes that are reportedly equipped with “smart toilets” that measure the hydration of players to aid in recovery. Is the improvement in individual performance worth the perceived sacrifice of personal freedom?

These questions will likely be addressed on the basketball court (and in the court system) before we see large-scale adoption in the corporate arena. In fact, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement includes language that explicitly addresses concerns about how wearable technology can be used by teams. This essentially gets to the work-life balance question, which is where social norms have begun to evolve. For example, millennials have made it clear that they plan to pursue meaning at work, and are blurring the lines between their professional and personal lives.

The reality is that this is likely just the beginning of these debates. Visionaries like Elon Musk are beginning to prepare for a future where humans augmented by technology will be the norm. We can rage against these advancements in the name of privacy and personal freedom, or we can consider thoughtful ways to structure these technologies in a way that are mutually beneficial for individuals and organizations. After all, would you complain if you never had to submit another expense report?

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