Most people who strap a fitness tracker to their wrist do so for motivation toward a daily step goal, or perhaps to prove their suspicions about a bad night's sleep. They don't necessarily think about ways it can help their employers help them.
But that's why, in 2019, a pilot group of PwC employees in the UK began wearing devices connected to their work calendars. This way, the firm could receive anonymized data that linked, for example, stress levels to meeting sprawl.
"The frontier of wearables is the world of work," said Pete Brown, the joint global leader of people and organization, PwC UK.
These ubiquitous, sensor-powered devices, he added, "have the potential to unlock a new world of insight for people and employees, supporting employee engagement and wellness."
What no-one expected was that the pre-COVID-19 mobility and biometric data of the volunteers would provide a useful baseline for better understanding work-life balance as the pandemic took hold.
When PwC UK collaborated with IHP Analytics, a company specialising in advanced human performance science with a heritage in elite sports such as Formula One, and asked for volunteers to wear a wearable device during lockdown, 2,000 members of staff responded in just four hours. Some of the comparisons between this newly remote (and largely homebound) workforce and their pre-COVID peer group were unsurprising, like the 27% drop in daily steps.
But other data pointed to invisible and often insidious ways that disrupted work patterns could manifest physically and psychologically.
"Volunteers could see, on their personalized dashboards, how back-to-back video calls impacted sleep, or their ability to switch tasks," Laura Hinton, the chief people officer for PwC UK, said. "Or they could see if particular patterns of work were creating evidence of stress."
After all, lack of sleep affects cognition, which in turn affects functioning on a professional as well as personal level. And because not all stress sufferers pick up on their symptoms, individual volunteers discovered a new way of checking in with themselves.
The pilot also revealed a clear difference between actual stress, which was measured from the heart-rate-variability feature on the wearable device, and perceived stress, which was tracked through a daily survey that asked participants how stressed they felt.
"A number of volunteers reported not necessarily realizing they were stressed initially, and gaining an understanding of how it can creep up gradually," Hinton said. "This validated our decision to prioritize the wellness of our people."
The logical next question: Once this data became anonymized and aggregated for PwC UK to analyze, how did the firm act on what it revealed?
Because employers are looking at a clear picture of conditions that make workers either thrive or wither, they are well equipped to tailor interventions and resources like health and wellness benefits, Hinton said. They can also make necessary workload adjustments.
In PwC UK's case, she pointed out, the data showed a need to empower workers to take more frequent breaks. Team leaders also explored innovations like walking meetings to encourage movement.
To assemble this data picture, PwC UK assembled a team of physicians, data ethicists, privacy experts, staff representatives, workforce specialists, and world-class human-performance and occupational-health experts to analyze the results.
The volunteers could all look at their own personalized data. Separately, the cross-disciplinary team collaborated to make sure data was stripped of personalizing information before being integrated into PwC UK's algorithm to scan for worker wellness needs.
"Organizations who implement this type of technology correctly and use the data to make informed decisions and investments around employee wellness could see better retention of top talent as well as attracting new talent," Brown said.
Both Hinton and Brown emphasized PwC UK wouldn't have undertaken the initiative if employee privacy couldn't be guaranteed. The damage to worker trust would be too great.
Hinton characterized the approach as "exceptionally cautious," adding that these types of programs had to be "employee-centric." The anonymization and aggregation of data, she said, "emphasized that this is about wellness and making informed decisions as a firm, rather than surveillance and monitoring individuals."
When PwC polled more than 32,500 members of the public for its 2021 "Hopes and fears" survey, 44% expressed willingness to use sensors and wearables to track productivity in ways their employers could access. This suggests that workers understand the rise of remote work requires other ways of staying connected to their workplaces.
In contrast, the 2014 survey found only 31% of respondents were willing to grant that kind of access.
"With this increasing willingness for employees to share data, as long as organizations can instill trust and confidence, they and their people can reap the benefits," Brown said.
The role of wearables in the future of work isn't confined to the wrist. Brown cited a separate pilot program underway at PwC UK in which 1,000 virtual-reality headsets had been sent to clients and workers to promote collaboration and mimic face-to-face interactions when they weren't possible.
As more wearable technology is introduced into working environments, the available knowledge will foster a new kind of work-based data science, Brown said.
"Wearables are just part of a larger analytics ecosystem which includes sensors and IT including our smartphones and PCs," he said. "In the near future, those organizations who understand the benefits and undertake these programs in a responsible way will start to think about management science more like sports science and improving the well-being and performance of key workplace 'athletes.'"