A High-Tech New Way for Your Boss to Follow You Everywhere

Wearable technologies such as Google Glass, which lets you take photos with a wink, or the Fitbit, which tracks your steps, have so far been mostly geared toward consumers looking for new toys. Soon, the same tech could be helping employers track and improve worker productivity.

Workplace-management software company Kronos says it is expanding its software offerings to work with wearables that have tracking and communication capabilities for manufacturing and retail companies. They expect the companies to roll out the new software this year. The devices could have huge benefits for productivity and safety, says Bill Bartow, the company’s vice president of global product management. Nurses, for instance, could wear a sensor on their clothing that detects heart rate and helps them fight off fatigue on long shifts.

Manufacturing companies, which often ban cell phones on the job, could strap GPS-enabled smart watches onto employees to hassle them if their smoke breaks are too long, Bartow says. “The manager could know their location and communicate with them through that device through an alert or a notification and say: ‘We need you immediately.’”

Cringing yet? It’s easy to see how this could quickly become annoying to workers or merely seem invasive. Sixty-six percent of millennials said they would be willing to use wearable technology if it allowed them to do their job better, while 58 percent of total workers were willing, according to a survey (PDF) last year by Cornerstone OnDemand. That still leaves plenty of people uneasy at the idea of giving employers a pulse on their every move.

That resistance could hurt productivity, says Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. He has studied the “transparency paradox,” which says that production and experimentation at the workplace can slow down if employees know the bosses are watching. “It will be much harder to see if these are actually improving productivity or if, because people change when they’re watched, they produce a different outcome than [employers] intended,” he says.

Privacy concerns abound, too—especially if employers track what workers are doing outside the office or when exchanging personal messages, says Ariana Levinson, an associate professor of law at University of Louisville who has studied workplace technology and privacy. “The concern people have from the privacy perspective is now: You’re being watched all the time,” she says. Legal precedent suggests workers might not be protected even when at home, as in Ontario v. Quon, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that a city government officer was constitutionally allowed to search personal messages on an employee’s work pager.

Levinson says workplace privacy laws have not kept up with emerging technologies and that legal claims challenging employers’ use of “intrusive” devices would probably fail. There may be some recourse though, she says: The union of United Parcel Service workers struck (PDF) a deal that said the company could not fire workers on information gleaned from GPS devices on delivery trucks.

Organizations are attempting to work out the kinks. Some Virgin Atlantic Airways employees checking in business class passengers will use Google Glass this year to more easily check flight and weather updates, Chief Executive Officer Craig Kreeger said in June. When testing the device this spring, Virgin employees faced some hiccups, such as short battery life and glitchy Internet connections. Medical school professors also started to use Google Glass to broadcast live surgeries to students.

The cloud computing company Salesforce.com—a potential vendor for companies that need to store data they collect about workers—unveiled an open-source platform in June for developers to create better apps for wearables. Daniel Debow, senior vice president of emerging technology at Salesforce.com, says wearables help eliminate inefficiencies we don’t even notice, such as time we spend taking our smartphones out of our pockets to check e-mail. It’s quicker to press a button on a smart watch. Debow says companies have to carefully ”exert management discretion and control over employees using these tools,” but thinks workers will like the time savings. “People generally appreciate when they have the ability to become more productive.”