Why You Can't Leave People to Their Own (Wearable) Devices

It's been interesting watching history repeat itself in many Human Resources departments this past year.

Back in 2003, when our employee health and performance program − GCC − was first conceived, I remember talking to some HR heads who were lamenting that their efforts to encourage healthy behavior among their employees were going unrewarded. They talked about how, months earlier, they'd allocated budget and provided every employee with a pedometer. As one Human Resources head of a global accounting firm explained, we put a pedometer on each employees' desk with a card explaining that in order to be healthy they needed to move more and wished them luck. It turned out, luck wasn't on their side, because as the HR head went onto explain:

"People put them on and for a few days we saw some already-healthy people kind of getting into it, but within a week or two, they'd all stopped wearing them and they were gathering dust in employees' underwear drawers."

This conversation guided me to the solution that became GCC. Looking back now, I must have heard this story in different forms from different Human Resources managers' lips in every corner of the world over the next few years. From 2002 to 2004, handing out pedometers was a common way for HR departments to sink budget into trying to encourage employees to get more active. The stories always end the same way because when you leave people to their own devices (pun intended) their pedometers always ended up in the same place; generally employees' underwear drawers. By 2004 we'd launched the GCC and pedometers were an important cog in the machine. But they weren't the machine per se.

The term 'wearable technology' hadn't been coined in 2003, but pedometers are indeed a wearable technology because they are worn on the waist and they provide the wearer with a piece of data - how many steps they've taken. As many businesses learned the hard way back in 2003-2005, simply handing employees a wearable device that gives them data didn't actually achieve anything in isolation, aside from putting a big dent in budgets.

The reason these devices were so critical was because we saw their potential in the context of giving employees a sense of self-awareness. The Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change(1) (pictured below) is a useful point of reference in understanding the role that wearable technology plays in changing employees' behaviors over the long term.


Putting a pedometer on an employee is like giving them a personal scoreboard that gives them a display of how active or inactive they have been. It is a tactical element that has the potential to capture the attention of employees regardless of whether they're in the Precontemplation, Contemplation or Determination phases but it is only a tactical element. This shiny, new scoreboard is only effective if there's a game to play. So we created the game which gradually moves all of these employees through to the Action Stage.

In our game, employees are given the context of 10,000 steps per day, which is around 5 miles or 8 kilometers, and encouraged to find ways to take 10,000 steps per day, which for many employees is the single most potent and accessible way of leading a healthy life. With a device, a single data point to focus on, some context and the promise of a fun game to get involved in with their colleagues, employees weren't on the road to health yet, but they were standing at the starting line.

In order to get employees moving along the path to health and taking action, we've proven that moving - and I mean this literally - is the best first step. In order ensure employees enter the Action Stage and move into and through the Relapse and Maintenance Stages, they need far more than any device can provide. They need to be able to set clear, measurable goals. They need peer support. They require ongoing excitement and motivation and they need a sense of reward.

A 2007 experiment conducted by British psychologist Richard Wiseman concluded that 88% of people who make New Year's Resolutions like 'getting healthy' end up failing. Why? Because the absence of the four elements cited above stops them progressing through the Action Stage. Their 'get healthy' goal is not clear or measurable, they're afraid of exercise and see it has a chore or punishment, they are unlikely to see any tangible results for some weeks or months and it is unlikely that they will declare their resolution publicly. Without goal setting, ongoing motivation, reward and peer support it is not surprising that your gymnasium is full in January and empty again in March. It explains why the shiny new wearable devices Santa delivered last year, were conspicuously absent from people's wrists by the time the Easter Bunny hopped into town.


The hard truth is that leading a healthy lifestyle isn't about buying something, or wearing something, or consuming something. It's about doing something. For example, giving people the single minded goal of taking 10,000 steps over 100 consecutive days is vital because it helps focus them on one data point. So often people fail to change and achieve the results because they start with too many things at once. Giving an employee one simple thing to focus on, and letting them use their own creativity and insight to figure out, ensures that they do. The Foundation for Chronic Disease Prevention's analysis of GCC 2014 showed that, within 100 days, 85% of participants achieved an average of 10,000 steps per day.

When it comes to shepherding employees safely through the Relapse and Maintenance Stages, peer support is also critical. When we originally engineered GCC to have teams of seven, it was because we came up against a problem. We had to ensure that employees received a daily sense of motivation and momentum. A single employees' activity wouldn't move them far across the earth's surface, which would mean that it would take them a week to get from one virtual location to unlocking the next one. We correctly identified that this was potentially a fatal flaw. Imagine reading the same edition of the same newspaper for seven days in a row! The solution was to put employees into teams of seven, which would mean that their cumulative total would move them each day to a new place. This solved a big problem, but as we'd learn, it actually solved a whole bunch of problems that we hadn't yet encountered.

When the first GCC rolled out in 2004, I remember visiting some of the people and organizations that participated. They were thrilled at how active everyone was, but it turned out that putting people into teams of seven was a stroke of accidental genius. It galvanized people and got them working towards a common goal. It made sign up easy because each time someone decided they wanted to do the GCC, they had to go and encourage six colleagues to join them. It got people into the program who ordinarily would have run (or gotten in their car and driven) a mile from it. It stopped people stopping, so as soon as people hit a big work deadline or felt tired, instead of dropping out, they felt a sense of responsibility to their team mates and kept going. It created a supportive environment that made entering and staying inside the Maintenance Stage easy, because along with making individual employees healthy, it helped entire workplace cultures become healthy.

Exciting, motivating and rewarding employees so that they transition smoothly through the Stages of the Transtheoretical model of behaviour change, can't be left to a device and nor can it be expected that data itself will motivate employees. This is where gamification is such a critical element. The rules for GCC are simple. Form a team of seven, wear a GCC Pulse to count your steps and enter them each day for 100 days. Each time you do, your activity will be converted into miles, added to your team mates' activity and you'll progress along a virtual racecourse around the world. The more active you are, the further you go and the more places you'll visit and discover.

The Relapse Stage is the time when most people fail when trying to create a new habit or set of behaviours. This is why employees' interaction with the GCC has to be enriching and create a sense of value and ritual. When the game is engineered and the content is curated and created well, the game becomes fun and addictive, the employee is distracted long enough from the fact that they're now doing something they'd been fearful of - exercising every day - and by the time they notice what is happening, the results are self evident, they're feeling energized, losing weight and looking forward to getting outside each day.

Ultimately the reward for doing the things that need to be done (like exercising) and becoming healthy is intrinsic. Being healthy feels really good, it looks good, it is good. At some point as the 100 day mark approaches, employees come to a realization that the game was the thing that got them started and it got them moving and it stopped them stopping at times where they might have ordinarily relapsed. They realize that they couldn't have started the process alone and that the GCC brought a sense of self-awareness, motivation and reward regarding their health and working life.

Lately, I have found myself in the same kinds of boardrooms and meeting rooms listening to a facsimile of the frustrated conversations I was hearing a decade ago.

"We bought everyone a device, but it hasn't worked. What should we do?"

Sure the devices cost a lot more and they're more shiny and complicated and regurgitate more numbers this time, but they're disappointing Human Resources departments across the world. History is repeating itself because without the complex and highly creative ecosystem I have described above, which accounts for the 'transtheoretical model of health behavior change', employees are once again being handed a tool which they have no training or motivation to use.

For more information about how the GCC helps organisations around the world meet their employee health and performance objectives, visit www.gettheworldmoving.com