Defend Truth

Opinionista

Beware the ethical and legal considerations of using wearables in the workplace

mm

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

Companies that want to introduce wearables should be open about what these devices can do and what data is collected. As we seek to augment humans, we must ensure that we are doing so in an ethical manner.

The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has fundamentally redefined the future world of work. Reports have outlined what this might look like, from the injection of technology into the workplace and the emergence of new jobs and skills – some have even signalled the possibility of mass job losses.

This has been a lasting concern – does the future world of work make humans obsolete? Perhaps an overlooked consideration in this conversation is how humans can be augmented by technology in the workplace rather than replaced.

For example, through key enabling technologies such as wearables, which are devices such as smartwatches, fitness trackers and augmented reality (AR) glasses designed to be worn on a user’s body, there is scope to ensure we keep humans in the loop.

In recent years, wearables have gained pace, largely in private capacities. However, we are increasingly seeing their use in professional settings, which is redefining our very conceptions of the role of technology in the workplace.

From a health point of view, it can encourage breaks, prevent burnout and promote healthier habits while enhancing workplace safety measures.

In 2018, Deloitte’s David Schatsky and Navya Kumar looked at the emergence of workforce superpowers. As they outlined, wearable technologies were increasing the strength, awareness, capacity and endurance of workers while simultaneously enhancing productivity and safety mechanisms.

As the authors stated, “technology is already making workers more valuable by enhancing their physical and perceptual abilities… Far from making workers obsolete, these technologies can improve their productivity, help them overcome physical limitations, or compensate for spotty skills. And they give employers new ways to plan for the workforce of the future.”

Vishal Patel et al argue that there has been a marked shift towards human-in-a-loop models in “smart” workplaces. These devices can lead to greater efficiency in the workplace based on real-time access to data, allowing for faster decision-making and outcomes.

Additionally, from a health point of view, it can encourage breaks, prevent burnout and promote healthier habits while enhancing workplace safety measures by monitoring environmental conditions, detecting hazardous materials and providing real-time warnings, particularly in high-risk environments.

Read more in Daily Maverick: World Health Day: Here’s how AI and digital health are shaping the future of healthcare

Wearables also allow for enhanced training and collaboration through immersive experiences and remote collaboration. For example, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), in the engineering department, students can access a mining simulation called the Simulacrum, which is a virtual reality blast simulation. In health sciences, students can interact through AR with mannequins that present real symptoms and reactions to treatments.

Ethical considerations

While this certainly presents an exciting new frontier for the world of work, there are also some broad ethical considerations. For example, wearable devices are often based on decontextualised data, which is largely descriptive and does not explain causal relationships as it does not take into account the social and psychological underpinnings of responses.

Moreover, these devices do not provide insight into actual performance and may affect an organisation’s credibility since only indices that are tracked are considered. It can also lead to favouritism based on skewed data, leading to discrimination.

There are also concerns around the concept of work-life balance, particularly when these wearables are used in a professional domain as well as a private domain.

Similarly, wearable devices can lead to the dehumanisation and objectification of employees, which could impair performance. Wearable devices may encourage narrow conformity of body standards and behaviour and thus result in biopower, which outlines an organisation’s power over the human body based on conformity.

This regulation of employee bodies can lead to inherent power imbalances and create a disconnect between employees and an organisation. These factors could lead to less-meaningful work and, thus, less-innovative organisations.

Additionally, there are privacy concerns regarding the data that is collected and how this is used. These devices can be intrusive and some employees may not be willing to embrace this technology.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The future we’re hurtling towards requires a fundamentally different skillset

There are also concerns around the concept of work-life balance, particularly when these wearables are used in a professional domain as well as a private domain.

Intriguingly, according to PwC, employees in South Africa are more receptive to the idea of wearables in the workplace. According to a survey, three-quarters of employees would provide information through their personal wearables to employers based on incentives such as flexible hours and lower insurance premiums. The question then becomes, how do companies introduce the use of wearables at work?

As Kateryna Maltseva outlines, companies that want to introduce wearables should be open about what these devices can do and what data is collected, create space for reflection and engagement with the data, co-create performance standards and encourage critical discussion.

In South Africa, there is another layer of protection through the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia). While Popia doesn’t specifically address wearables, its provisions are relevant to the collection, use and protection of personal information obtained through wearables in the workplace.

A 2019 study on privacy in health devices found that the act sufficiently protected users’ privacy in terms of notice, awareness, choice, consent, access and participation, but not in terms of social disclosure. As this technology becomes increasingly entrenched, there is certainly scope to explore the role of Popia in protecting employees.

In the exploration of the role of technology in the future world of work, we have to consider the impact on employees. As we seek to augment humans, we must ensure that we are doing so in an ethical manner to ensure effectiveness while safeguarding employee rights and privacy. As Albert Einstein reminds us, “the human spirit must prevail over technology”. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Retief Joubert says:

    Wow. Another SUPER relevant article by the VC. When you don’t even have a view of reality any more from your ivory tower, you should get worried.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.