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25 Jul

The future of wearables in the workplace

By Dolores McLaren, SEO Executive, CIPD.

Wearables have been around since 1286 AD when the first glasses were invented, although these looked slightly different and had rather limited functionality compared to the latest inventions such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift. But at the time it was a ground breaking invention that improved eyesight and eye health, meaning it significantly improved quality of life (even though employees’ wellbeing wasn’t such a huge topic back then).

Wearable tech has evolved somewhat since then, and its application in the workplace is becoming the new normal. Companies around the world are adopting various devices to improve employees’ wellbeing and productivity; some are even said to boost our happiness levels at work.

There’s a good and bad side with every innovation, and the same goes for wearables. On one hand it could really help with wellbeing if used appropriately, but on the other, if employers start collecting too much data it could put employees under a lot more stress and potential insecurity.

The use of wearables in the workplace - wearables glasses, Google Glass

Use of wearables in the workplace

This fairly new way of working is growing rapidly, and being used by many companies, both large and small.

Adopting new technology is often a challenge for a business, perhaps due to the cost implications, appropriate use, or privacy concerns. Although there are many benefits of adopting wearables, there are still some disadvantages every business should consider.

Health and wellbeing is a growing concern. In last few years there have been studies showing that inactivity is as deadly as smoking, and twice as deadly as obesity. Inactivity causes 9% of premature mortality worldwide.

It could be reduced significantly by just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, which is 20 minutes of brisk walk a day (or a similar activity). It could be done during a lunch break every day, and tracked by a device. Work related stress is the most common cause of absenteeism, and even that can be prevented with regular workout.

So it comes as no surprise that companies around the world are offering smart devices as part of workplace wellness programs. For instance, BP employees can use Fitbit and enroll in a “million-step challenge”, in which they can earn wellness points by meeting step goals.

This type of wellness program, as well as being good for employees and fostering a culture of wellbeing, has the added benefit of getting the employer a better deal on employee insurance.

Monitoring health could reduce absence

Monitoring health could reduce absence

Eliminates need for most of today’s clunky devices

By reducing employees’ dependence on clunky devices and big screens, we could move around more freely and frequently, without feeling disconnected. One of the hottest devices in this category is definitely the Apple Watch, which enables you to instantly receive and respond to notifications, such as new emails.

It also helps people to stay healthy and motivated by tracking their activity and encouraging healthy routines. Some companies have already offered the device to their employees as part of a corporate wellness program. This piece of wearable tech is seen as beneficial to both employers and employees.

Monitoring physical movement

Monitoring physical movement

There’s always an advantage with every tech innovation. We could say that monitoring movement would help in particular markets. For instance, the military, industrial sector, and health care organisations could benefit from devices where tracking the position of employees could improve safety. On the flip-side, there is the example of Hitachi which has developed a device that tracks physical movement bit too much. It looks similar to an employee ID badge, but it tracks every single movement. So, if you go to the coffee machine your manager knows it, if you go to the bathroom your manager knows that too; no matter what you do, it has all been tracked.

There are very real concerns that this type of wearable tech could be going a step too far. Everyone needs a bit of privacy, even in the workplace. Hitachi developed its device to improve the happiness level of a group, but it is clear how stressful it can be knowing you’re being tracked all the time. Would this solution really be good for an employee?

Wearables should be useful, not just cool

Numerous smart devices and apps can track our mood, sleep habits or even how often we call someone. We can share the data via social networks if we want to. That would be a change to normal Facebook status messages; we might even start reading them!

Of course, these wouldn’t be of much use for improving wellbeing or productivity; at least, not in the same way as something like a Fitbit and Apple Watch could. From an employer’s point of view, useful is better than cool; a popular app might give you plenty of informal social notifications, but that doesn’t mean it would improve wellbeing or productivity.

The “The Human Cloud at Work” study led by Dr Chris Brauer of the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmith, University of London, found that people using wearables increased their productivity by 8.5% and job satisfaction by 3.5%. The study also found that wearable technology helps employees be more effective. So why aren’t we all using wearables already?

Privacy and legal concerns

Some argue that giving so much data to an employer could create a stressful environment. Most employees aren’t even aware that companies can and will read their work emails, IM messages, and other mediums for official work communication.

If we think how much companies like Google, Apple or Microsoft track us, the data collected from wearables wouldn’t intrude on our privacy any more than that. Or think of how much data we give away for marketing purposes. Would giving away information like how many steps we’ve done today, or how much sleep we’ve had, really bother us that much?

But maybe we wouldn’t want a device like the one from Hitachi though.

Employers, on the other hand, have a lot more to worry about if they don’t implement wearables in the right way. There could be lawsuits based on data collection that indicates an employee’s under-performance. Or what happens if an employee records a meeting or takes pictures of a restricted area? Collecting data from wearables could have many unwanted outcomes, particularly if a policy hasn’t been implemented clearly.

As with every other piece of technology, there are advantages and disadvantages. In the case of wearables, as long as the company’s stance is clear, the advantages are plenty. It helps to increase productivity, workplace efficiency and job satisfaction. Happier employees will do their work better and stay with company for longer.

In just two years, the technology we wear has gained a lot of space within the enterprise world. We will all be wearing them soon enough and all those concerns will be forgotten in the near future. It will become a norm, a part of our working life that we don’t even pay attention to anymore.

Further down the line, we may even be wearing Oculus Rift to go to places far, far away, to escape work-related stress. In any case, being more efficient at work, should make it more difficult for robots to replace us. At least, until deep learning evolves…