Tracking technology

The camera function of Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch is displayed at an event ahead an electronics trade fair in Berlin on September 4, 2013. (JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP/Getty Images / September 4, 2013)

Wearable gadgets, already popular for consumers eager to take pictures with a blink of an eye or make a phone call with a swipe on a watch, are expanding to the workplace.

Later this year, workplace management software company Kronos has said it will introduce software that works with wearable technologies -- such as wristbands or watches -- and includes tracking and communications capabilities.

Eventually, employers could be able to track employees’ every move, and send them alerts, an idea that has businesses excited about boosted productivity and employees cringing over privacy concerns.

Employees worry that alerts might be used to hassle them during breaks. But Bartow said that’s unlikely, and employees so far have to verify that they agree to allow their employer to use location tracking.

Stephen Burnett, a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said he’s a fan of more data and analytics, but said companies should tread carefully when implementing wearable tracking systems.

“It’s important that it’s joint effort,” Burnett said. “It can’t be a top-down thing: ‘I’m going to measure you, and spy on you and control you.’ It has to be seen as a joint venture between the company and the employees, where the employees also benefit from these things.”

Involving employees in the decision to implement some of these technologies would help, he said, and added that companies should be sensitive to still give employees discretion on how they do their work.

“Believe me, if you know anything, you know your job, and you know when you’ve been turned into a robot,” Burnett said. “And you resent that.”

Bill Bartow, Kronos’ vice president of global product management, said Kronos software will keep track of employees’ skills, too, so businesses can send out alerts to qualified workers for a specific task with the click of a button.
The tracking technology is also designed to help managers measure which routes are most efficient in a particular space, for example: Which path is best to move a product from point A to point B in a warehouse?

Bartow said there are also opportunities to merge Kronos’ software with bio-tracking technologies, which could alert managers when a nurse or an assembly worker needs a physical break, and could tell them who’d be best to sub in.

In the case of shipbuilders who need welders with specific qualifications at a site as soon as possible, tracking technology can tell managers which welders are most qualified as well as closest to the site, he said.

Already, though, employers tracking their workers’ whereabouts have run into legal snags.

Chicago-based WaterSaver Faucet Co. earlier this year started tracking employees’ bathroom breaks. Those employees get 6 minutes a day to use the bathroom, tracked by swiping their employee ID cards to get into the bathroom. A local union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last month.

Burnett said the tracking and communication wearable devices could backfire if employees aren’t on board.
“You could certainly hypothesize that if somebody feels resentful, that’s not going to get you a very happy, productive, committed employee,” Burnett said. “In fact, that’s going to get you someone who’s looking to leave or sabotage the system. You really have to understand that these are people and they want to be treated in a very respectful way.”

The Chicago Tribune uses Kronos to track employee timesheets.

ehirst@tribune.com