Wearable technology in the workplace

“There is a wearable future around the corner, and it’s more immediate than we think.”

That’s according to a report commissioned by PricewaterhouseCoopers into the use of wearable technology in the workplace.

Since the dawn of smartphones, there have been the inevitable dad jokes — “Oh dear, have you superglued that iPhone to your hand?” Yet with the increasing popularity of wearable tech, this almost glue-like attachment to smart devices has become much more real.

What actually qualifies as wearable tech? Essentially any smart device that can be worn to track wearer activity, health stats, even anxiety levels.

There’s no doubt smart tech has changed the way we operate as a society. It’s changed the way we socialise, the way we work out, and importantly, the way we work.

In fact, the PwC report went so far as to say, “It can dramatically reshape the way we live and do business.”

What are the actual uses of wearable tech in the workplace?

Health and wellbeing programs

In an office setting, wearable tech that allows the user to track health and fitness data can be incorporated very easily into an appealing employee wellness plan.

“An increasing number of employers are encouraging their staff to wear fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone to measure their health,” says Techwire Asia.

Tech Revolution provides one example of this in practice, commenting: “British Petroleum incorporated Fitbits into their workplace in 2013, offering staff cheaper health plans in exchange for points accrued by using the device.”

A gamified approach to health and wellbeing which can result in cheaper health plans, subsidised wearables, and potentially better health, is a clear benefit for staff. What about for the employer?

As well as saving on health care costs for the company, healthy employees are less likely to take sick days, and more likely to perform at peak levels, increasing the return on investment in wearable tech.

Efficiency in the workplace

“Seventy six percent of companies found improved business performance after implementing wearable tech in their strategies,” according to Techwire, commenting on a report by Salesforce.

The PwC study mentioned earlier describes the potential benefits of wearable devices in the workplace, from improved communication to real time instruction and feedback, to monitoring employee activity for streamlining of  processes, and even enabling hands free tutorials and easy information access.

So practically speaking, how does this work?

Techwire provides an example: “Hitachi developed a wearable sensor that gathers and analyses data on individual human behaviour and measures how this correlates with work productivity.”

This employee data is then analysed to determine workplace happiness levels, and to identify to management areas for improvement.

The expected outcome: greater workplace satisfaction and subsequent productivity.

Stress management

A less-stressed employee is a happier one, and also less likely to hit the panic button at a crucial moment.

Wearable devices enable the user to track stress levels, heart rate, breathing, even to analyse the wearer’s routine and offer data on potential stress triggers.

For example, the Spire stone, a personal breathing sensor which can be clipped on to your clothing.

“ Unlike exercise-oriented fitness gadgets, it tracks respiration patterns and body movements to provide advice geared to emotional and cognitive well-being,” reports Gadgets & Wearables.

“It notifies you when your breathing indicates tension, and provides daily and weekly reports on your state of mind.”

Common wearables like Fitbit and Apple Watch have similar functions, sending reminders to take a minute to relax, breathe or get some exercise.

Employee safety

Wearables can also be used as alerts for workplace safety, or to ensure staff are mentally focused when carrying out potentially dangerous tasks.

For example, Tech Revolution relates, “Australian truck drivers at Rio Tinto’s coal mines are utilising a SmartCap to prevent accidents related to fatigue.”

The SmartCap has sensors across the forehead to monitor signs of fatigue and assess the wearer’s level of alertness.

Techwire also highlights the use of Wearsafe, a wearable tag which enables workers to alert employers or contacts when their safety is in danger.

This kind of data collection can be used in a positive way to increase employer job safety, which in turn boosts workplace productivity.

What about some of the possible downsides?

Privacy of personal data

Accumulation of employee data can of course give rise to some privacy concerns.

“A mountain of personal data is being collected by the devices daily, and so ensuring advanced data protection should be a top priority for employers seeking to build trust with their staff,” suggests Techwire.

“Consumers across all demographics are leery of the impact wearable technology will have on the privacy and security of their personal information,” notes the PwC report mentioned earlier.

The level of access employers have to personal information, whether it relates to work performance, health and wellbeing programs, or logging in hours, needs to be clearly set out in writing for staff to feel their privacy is ensured.

Potential for cyberattack

Another area of concern is cyberattacks. Susceptibility can be increased once there are outside devices connecting in to company wireless networks.

Raimund Genes (Trend Micro CTO) says that businesses need to show greater diligence around their use and policing of wearable tech.

On Computer Weekly, he is quoted as saying: “[Wearable devices] collect all kinds of personal information which can be misused, not only by cyber criminals but also by companies looking to harvest and re-sell this data.”

He recommends a thorough risk assessment.

Michael Cohen, Systems Administrator at ECC IT Solutions, recommends establishing a team to develop a company’s wearables policy that addresses user access, guidelines, consequences for breaking the rules as well as storage and protection of data.

He also recommends staff are educated on cybersecurity threats,  “Make sure that this education program includes lessons on using strong passwords, keeping security programs and firmware up-to-date, and not oversharing information on social media.”

Conclusion

In a poll taken by Trend Micro, 82% of organisations in Europe and the Middle East had either begun to use or were interested in implementing wearable technology.

With a wearable future “around the corner” or maybe already upon us, considering the risks and benefits of wearable tech in the workplace is key to ensuring staff and management don’t come unstuck.