A Web of Devices Will Reshape the Workforce

How ‘device mesh’ is reshaping work by merging the physical and virtual worlds.

By Dinah Brin May 1, 2016
5HR-tech.jpg 0516cover.jpgRobots that roam the warehouse floor gathering maintenance data to send to those who need it. Billboards that change displays based on relevant data about passers-by. A smartphone that can turn on a work computer during an employee’s commute. These scenarios are not just the stuff of science fiction. A growing “device mesh”—the network formed by wearable and mobile devices as well as sensors within other objects (which together make up the so-called Internet of Things)—is changing society and transforming business.

The next generation of devices will connect not only to back-end systems but also to each other. “In the post-mobile world, the focus shifts to the mobile user who is surrounded by a mesh of devices extending well beyond traditional mobile devices,” says David Cearley, vice president and fellow at Stamford, Conn.-based technology consultancy Gartner. It’s a “merging of the physical and virtual worlds.”

By 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices communicating through the Internet that individuals and businesses will use to access applications and information and to interact with others.

The Internet of Workplace Things

Device mesh and other trends herald “an algorithmic- and smart-machine-driven world in which people and machines must define harmonious relationships,” according to a report by consulting firm Gartner Inc.

Examples of device mesh:

  • Ambient user experience. Emerging technologies will flow “across a shifting set of devices and interaction channels, blending physical, virtual and electronic environments as the user moves from one place to another,” the Gartner report states.
  • 3-D printing. Technological innovation will drive demand in 3-D printed electronics, pharmaceuticals and biological materials, which will expand to the aerospace, medical, energy and other business sectors.
  • Information of everything. Data transmission will move beyond text, audio and video information to include sensory data and more.
  • Advanced machine learning. Systems will “learn to perceive the world on their own,” performing tasks and analysis functions that are unrealistic for humans to perform given the “explosion of data sources and complexity of information.” For example, machines will write 20 percent of business content by 2018.
  • Autonomous agents. Over the next five years, organizations will evolve in a post-app world, with agents such as Siri and Google Now delivering dynamic and contextual actions and interfaces. “IT leaders should explore how they can use autonomous things and agents to augment human activity and free people for work that only people can do,” says David Cearley, vice president and fellow at Gartner.

The implications for employers are huge—and looming. The device-mesh revolution is “coming to an employer near you,” says Kate Bischoff, SHRM-SCP, a Minneapolis-based management-side employment attorney with Zelle LLP. It may even affect how performance is managed. For example, supervisors or HR could rely on sensors to track where workers are, who is talking to whom and how space is being utilized. These devices “are going to have a big impact on productivity, and they’re going to be able to tell bosses who’s doing a better job,” Bischoff says. But whether device mesh, on the whole, is more big boon or Big Brother remains to be seen. Either way, HR must be prepared.

The Future Is Now

While the development of complex device-mesh networks won’t happen overnight, many organizations are moving in that direction, in part due to cheaper solutions that are reducing barriers to adoption. For example, according to the Sierra-Cedar 2015-2016 HR Systems Survey White Paper, 10 percent of organizations are currently making use of wearable devices such as fitness trackers or smartwatches for a business purpose, with another 8 percent considering doing so in the future. Sierra-Cedar also reported a 30 percent increase this year in the percentage of organizations that included wearable technologies as part of their HR strategy.

“When organizations use wearable workplace technology, 55 percent of our respondents are using it to track productivity, 45 percent are concerned about workforce safety and 36 percent are implementing workforce technology for audit purposes,” the white paper states.

In fact, Gartner analysts estimate that by 2018, 2 million U.S. employees will be required to wear fitness and health-tracking devices as a condition of employment. Experts predict that emergency first responders will make up the largest group obligated to monitor their health with wearables—with professional athletes, airline pilots, political leaders, and industrial and remote field workers expected to follow suit.

New Realities

Device mesh could revolutionize—and challenge—businesses in several ways, including:

  • Enabling more-efficient, real-time operations. Connecting more devices to the Internet will allow businesses greater intelligence and the ability to bolster the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations. Many employers will likely upgrade their equipment in coming years and install “smart” machines and devices, such as point-of-sale scanners, analytics software, and robots (capable of sending and receiving production and maintenance information) that can be hooked up to the Internet.
  • Creating new business opportunities. Device mesh opens the door to new business opportunities and revenue streams. Having more data about processes and products will enable companies to more quickly and radically improve market agility to respond to customer demand. It can also help businesses monetize additional services that complement traditional lines of business. For example, vending machine companies could offer inventory management to companies that supply the products in the machine.
  • Multiplying cybersecurity and privacy concerns. One major challenge to this ultra-connected world is cybersecurity. The more information companies collect, the greater the potential for thieves to hack into online data troves and steal valuable and sensitive business information. HR and IT professionals must consider the best ways to secure their data, including by frequently updating their systems and by using sophisticated identity management and user authentication processes.

But privacy concerns don’t end simply because a company has taken steps to secure its information assets. In the brave new world of easily monitored, instantly available data, it’s not yet clear how far employers can go in tracking information about workers, particularly with regard to employee health.

A federal district judge ruled against the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last year and held that an employer can require workers to undergo health screenings as a condition for receiving employer-provided health coverage. While on its face this decision would appear to support an employer’s right to mandate the use of fitness trackers or other wearables, the EEOC is expected to appeal.

The commission “is going to be really anxious about anyone who’s going to require that an employee enter a wellness program,” Bischoff says.

On top of figuring out that complicated issue, imagine trying to manage a workforce partly populated by robots. By 2018, Gartner estimates that more than 3 million workers around the world will be supervised by “robo-bosses”—smart machines that can monitor quantifiable metrics related to performance.

As the promise of device mesh unfolds, it will be up to HR to develop strategies that keep humans in the equation when robots begin doing much of the work and to sort out the many business, social and technical issues this will present.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer and journalist in Philadelphia.

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