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14 Nov 2018

Do we need a digitally enabled workplace?

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Wearable tech is less effective in motivating the older workforce – perhaps what we need is a digitally enabled workplace that supports us as we age

It is now widely accepted that having real-time data on what we eat, how much we exercise and how we sleep can help us manage our health and wellbeing.

We’ve become accustomed to using digital technology to measure everything from steps and calories to heart rate and body fat. We’ve also become familiar with the movement that has grown up around this life-logging trend – the Quantified Self movement – and the burgeoning industry in wearable tech that does the monitoring.

Nike may have stopped making its Nike+ FuelBand, once the poster child of the movement, but the “everyday athletes” in the millennial workforce are hooked on a range of devices that track every health-conscious move they make.

And that’s the trouble with the Quantified Self movement: its most passionate disciples are those who least need a prompt to eat better or walk more. It’s rather like corporate gyms: the only employees who go in them are already super-fit; the rest of the workforce sulks at the desk with a bag of crisps, a sausage sandwich and calorific fizzy drink.

The people who really need to watch their weight, monitor their heart rate and remember to take their vitamins are older people in the workforce. But I can vouch that wiring yourself up to get a better statistical grasp of your daily performance is of little interest to most of us in our sixties, locked in that endless grind known euphemistically as “extended working life”.

In some ways this is a shame because the ability to respond to such information could help an ageing workforce manage its wellbeing much better. But there’s something more than slightly off-putting about the competitive gaming aspect of the Quantified Self and its hordes of self-obsessed “digital natives”.

For “digital immigrants” more comfortable with familiar analogue interfaces that can be intuitively understood, shouldn’t there be an alternative that fits older lifestyles, is less geeky and doesn’t involve reading graphs and charts?

Design researchers have been trying to figure this out for some time. I remember a great project in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art a few years ago, which partnered with a large Japanese consumer electronics manufacturer.

Inspired by the Japanese market, which has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world (a friend in Tokyo once memorably said: “If you throw a stone in Japan it will hit a senior”), the research team came up with a concept named Qualified Self. The differences in approach with the Quantified Self were subtle but revealing.

While the quantifying movement sought to give people a better sense of their performance through the reading of empirical health data, the Qualified Self sought to give older people a better sense of themselves by delivering personal insights and reminders at the time, in the place and through the media that is best suited for them.

If a wearable fitness band epitomised the Quantified Self movement, then a digitally enabled mirror sitting at the entrance to the home and using facial recognition to provide personalised wellbeing messages was the poster child for the Qualified Self movement.

This device could remind you to take your meds, as well as your wallet and Freedom Pass when you leave the house, communicating information in a (literally) reflective and reassuring way that contextualises your day – all in a large, readable typeface. This innovation never reached the market, but the tech now exists to make it a reality.

And this gets me thinking: in the coming age of the smart building, couldn’t we digitally enable the physical infrastructures and artefacts of the workplace (entrance lobbies, desks and so on) to support the wellbeing of older workers? We’re the ones walking an employment tightrope balanced between the 24/7 demands of the workplace and the inevitable deficits of energy and focus that come with older age.

As office workers age, we shouldn’t need to wear a fiddly new gadget to monitor our health when the familiar stuff all around us could be digitally augmented to lend a hand. Workplace furniture companies, lighting firms, startups and scale-ups – forget the millennials, it’s time to form your own Qualified Self movement for those at the other end of the age spectrum.

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