|Wearables in the Workplace|
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Getting set for his 40-yard dash, the Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton leaned into a sprinter's stance and swept his left arm upward, ready for the downward thrust that would launch him off the line. The Forty, as insiders call it, is the premiere test of raw speed. Newton's burst at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine showed that he has plenty of it: He covered the distance in 4.59 seconds.
Newton's athleticism has since been on display with the Carolina Panthers, which made him the first pick of the 2011 draft. But team managers didn't have to rely on stopwatches to judge his quickness. Woven into his red Under Armour shirt were sensors that transmitted real-time statistics on the physics and physiology of his performance to the computers of scouts, coaches, and league officials. How much power was in Newton's fourth stride compared with his 14th? At what points were his legs out of sync? How did his heart rate and breathing compare with competing prospects' at each millisecond? Charts and other graphics covered the screens, offering answers. Five years ago scouts assessed players' Forties solely on the basis of time. Today an array of wearable sensors offer them rich data about every inch of a player's sprint.
The scene is a harbinger of the widespread use of what I call physiolytics, the practice of linking wearable computing devices with data analysis and quantified feedback to improve performance. Physiolytics grew out of two trends. The first is a wave of innovation in wearable technologies. Current items range from sensors in shoes (such as Nike+, used by runners to track distance, speed, and other metrics) to smart bracelets (such as BodyMedia's FIT, which deploys IBM algorithms and crunches 7.2 million physiological data points a day). The second trend is big data, though in physiolytics, the analysis starts with a sample size of one.
For an NFL prospect looking to earn millions a year, it's obvious why obsessing over fractions of seconds could be worthwhile. But physiolytics is spreading to workers in factory and office settings as well. As it does, it represents the next evolution of the time and motion studies done by the efficiency expert Frederick Taylor a century ago. Taylor examined iron workers individually to derive generalizable insights. Physiolytics goes much further, offering three kinds of analysis.
1: Quantifying movements within physical work environments.
The first kind of analysis focuses on people's movements in various work settings. For many workers, the prospect creates anxiety: Oh, no, I'm being watched! Managers must concentrate on issues that drive productivity and communicate that the goal is to improve organizational performance, not to punish individuals.
At a distribution center in Ireland, Tesco workers move among 87 aisles of three-story shelves. Many wear armbands that track the goods they're gathering, freeing up time they would otherwise spend marking clipboards. A band also allots tasks to the wearer, forecasts his completion time, and quantifies his precise movements among the facility's 9.6 miles of shelving and 111 loading bays. A 2.8-inch display provides analytical feedback, verifying the correct fulfillment of an order, for instance, or nudging a worker whose order is short.
The grocer has been tapping such tools since 2004, when it signed a $9 million deal for an earlier generation of wearables to put into service in 300 locations across the UK. The efficiency gains it hoped for have been realized: From 2007 to 2012, the number of full-time employees needed to run a 40,000-square-foot store dropped by 18%. That pleases managers and shareholders—but not all workers, some of whom have complained about the surveillance and charged that the system measures only speed, not quality of work.
Other early adopters of this type of physiolytics have been in health care, the military, and the industrial sector. They use tracking not just to increase productivity but also for health and personal safety, and they have gotten a better reception among workers. Fatigue-monitoring sensors, for example, which notice when a head or body slumps, provide information that backhoe drivers and other equipment operators care deeply about. Sensors in the helmets of NFL players that measure the force of impacts could reduce players' long-term risk of traumatic brain injury.
Consider this win-win use of physiolytics: About 90% of companies now offer wellness programs, some of which encourage employees to use Fitbit and other devices that measure the quantity and intensity of their workouts and to employ simple visual and motivational tools to track their progress and help sustain their engagement. Because the programs are administered by third-party providers, employers can't see any individual's metrics. But the aggregate analytics give them robust insights about correlations between wellness, job satisfaction, and financial performance. The wellness program provider Carewise, whose members use Fitbit, has found that the health care costs of highly engaged participants rise just 0.7% annually, compared with 24% for less engaged participants.
2: Working with information more efficiently.
The second kind aims to make knowledge work more efficient by analyzing the time and motion required to perform a process. Because knowledge work is often idiosyncratic—"a mysterious art," researchers call it—this approach requires close collaboration between managers and employees. Although increased efficiency is an important outcome, these initiatives primarily aim to help employees work smarter, not faster.
Boeing became a leader in this area more than 20 years ago, when it began using head-up displays in cockpits so that pilots could obtain critical information without looking down at dials. It then applied the technology to its manufacturing operations, issuing the gear to wire-assembly experts to free them of the need to flip through instruction manuals.
Other companies have followed suit. In the 1990s Bell Canada began outfitting phone technicians with wrist-worn PCs, which let them enter data from repair sites without walking back to the computers in their trucks—saving each technician almost an hour a day. In the late 1990s the U.S. industrial engineering firm Schneider gave its field engineers belt-mounted voice-activated computers, which boosted efficiency by 150%. In 2002 the British asbestos-remediation firm OHS began outfitting inspectors with belt-mounted computers containing blueprints of buildings and generating analytical suggestions for navigating rooms efficiently and identifying likely trouble spots. This sped up site visits by 25%, saving each surveyor 480 man-hours a year. It also allowed for real-time reporting of findings, which cut the office time needed to write a client report in half.
Wearable Devices: A History
The concept sounds futuristic, but it's based on technology that has evolved over nearly 50 years.
Mobile workers check their smartphones more than 150 times a day, on average. This ubiquitous act presents a new frontier for improvement: Each check typically requires a sequence of movements (type in password, choose app, enter data) that takes about 20 seconds. Emerging wearables, most notably Google Glass, will replace those steps with "microinteractions"—simple gestures that take far less time. Microsoft is developing armbands that will project keyboards and displays onto wearers' wrists—obviating the need, say, to fumble with a smartphone to check a price. Other early prototypes suggest that predictive feedback based on a wearer's movements through informational and physical contexts will be an integral part of these tools. By analyzing where you are and where you're going, apps will offer contextual data before you ask for it, eliminating search time.
3: Analyzing the big data inside us.
The third kind quantifies the physiological functions, from the movements of our hearts to the firings of neurons in our brains, that underlie how we work. Melon has developed an EEG headband that helps wearers understand their cognitive patterns. For instance, it measures the spikes in gamma brain waves that occur milliseconds before an "aha" moment—data that might, over time, give users insight into when they are most likely to be creative. According to Pew Research, 21% of Americans already use self-tracking technologies to understand health patterns or improve cognitive performance.
A fundamental question is whether these tools can support broad organizational objectives without eroding privacy. Recent tests conducted by the French video game publisher Ubisoft suggest a workable blueprint. The firm developed a finger-clamp sensor that measures levels of stress. Because the device is linked to a gaming interface, it addresses "a serious issue in a nonthreatening, fun way," says its developer, Olivier Janin. Users can view their stats privately (bosses can't access an individual's data) and can see aggregated user results; they can also opt out, anonymously, at any time. The recorded stress levels for one group dropped more than 50% during the course of the test period.
It's early days for physiolytics. But over time managers in many types of companies will embrace the opportunities it offers to improve workers' output. As with Taylor's time and motion studies, predicting all the effects will be difficult: Although Taylorism is best remembered for sparking the age of scientific management, it was also a factor in the rise of organized labor. As wearable technology spreads, managers should keep the emphasis on creating a better team—as it was during Cam Newton's dash. Physiolytics could then fulfill its promise as a new management science that increases organizational efficiency while heightening individual motivation.