Many companies are starting to incorporate wearable technology into their workforces in order to monitor worker movements and improve productivity. Using technology such as smartglasses, wristbands, smartwatches, badges, and implantable microchips in the workplace is becoming a topic of debate among executives. The value of data-driven efficiency is alluring, but workers right to privacy is a factor to consider.
Additionally, having a wearable device is not enough, as it must be paired with a powerful back-end system. Wearables provide no real value on their own, and have to be a part of the move towards a system of intelligence that combines big data, cloud, and analytics. Connecting all three is a challenge for many organizations.
According to a recent report from Tractica, more than 75 million wearable devices will be deployed in enterprise and industrial environments between 2014 and 2020. It is expected that smart watches will be the largest category of wearables in the workplace, followed by fitness trackers and smart glasses.
Projected Enterprise and Industrial Wearable Shipments and Revenues, Global: 2013 to 2020
A key trend is companies equipping workers with fitness trackers to motivate them to take part in corporate wellness efforts. Some companies are offering prizes and incentives through the program. In cases where company-issued fitness trackers include tracking and surveillance, workers have to give explicit consent to have their data shared, and any data that is shared gives an overall picture of progress rather than specific details. According to Gartner, nearly 2,000 companies worldwide offered their staff fitness trackers in 2013, rising to 10,000 in 2014, and it is predicted that most companies with over 500 employees will offer fitness trackers by 2016. At BP, more than 24,500 Fitbit fitness trackers have been distributed to staff in its North American business in 2015 alone.
In industries with high-risk roles, wearables are playing a role in safety. In coal mines in Australia, a device called “SmartCap” looks like a regular baseball cap, but has sensors to detect alertness, and provides an early warning when a driver is approaching a “microsleep”, which helps to reduce fatigue-related accidents. Industrial smartglasses are being used in construction and manufacturing to capture HD video of complex problems encountered. Through two-way communication, a remote viewer can guide or train the wearer from afar.
In some companies, near-field communication (NFC) chips that are implanted under the skin are offered to workers as a means of eliminating the need for key-fobs or electronic entry cards. According to Hannes Sjoblad, the Chief Disruption Offer at the Epicenter Co-working space in Stockholm, Sweden, about 15-20 percent of the 250 people working there have opted into the program, and security, real estate companies, and even military organizations are inquiring about the technology, looking to adopt similar systems.
Other companies are using wearable devices to streamline logistics. For example, workers in Amazon’s warehouses wear GPS tags and have a handheld scanner that tells them the most efficient route to collect an item for delivery. And at U.K. supermarket chain Tesco, armbands worn by staff in distribution centers help track the goods being transported, eliminating the need to mark clipboards and providing managers with estimated completion times.
While the introduction of wearable technology is expected to lead to data-driven efficiency, many are concerned about the issues of workers’ right to privacy and data security, since these devices often capture personal and biometric information.
“The privacy issues are profound. If people are being asked to wear a biometric electronic device, or use a mobile app or work within a wellness program, that data can be used in ways that may be very, very surprising to people.” ~Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum
Often, consumer gadgets don’t have rigorous encryption and other protections to safeguard personal data, which can leave companies exposed to data leaks or theft. According to the 2015 Wearable Technology Survey from Ipswitch, security breaches are the top concern for IT professionals when workers wear technology to work. This was followed by concerns about more work involved in supporting new devices on the network, and decreased network bandwidth.
There is also a risk of creating an oppressive working environment that can damage employee morale if the technology is seen as an intrusive surveillance tool rather than something that improves productivity or performance.
Finally, companies have to consider compliance when deciding to utilize wearable technology in the workplace. In some industries, such as oil and gas, manufacturing, and construction, there are standards that have to be met, along with certain requirements and expectations for products and equipment used at job sites.
“It started with big data discussions around gathering business insights and not having the human accounted for in that data puzzle. Wearable technology can help make the workforce visible in that.” ~Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London