According to a 2016 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), there will be more than 75 million wearables within the workplace by 2020. And within a year, wearing health and fitness tracking devices will be a condition of employment for more than two million workers.
While monitoring personal health remains one of the major applications of the technology within the workplace, other uses are emerging, such as, safety, efficiency and security. The advantages of this include the potential to influence employee well-being and productivity, as well as improve physical conditions for manual laborers.
Personal wearables already perform a wide range of functions, from monitoring sleep and temperature to logging exercise and heart rate, and not only improve lifestyle conditions but can also improve workspace conditions.
In 2015, the Human Cloud at Work study by Goldsmiths University applied principles from sports science to show how wearable tech could improve job satisfaction by 3.5% and employee productivity by 8.5%. They found the huge volume of data produced by a wearable-enhanced workforce could be leveraged in a number of ways, from identifying better physical improvements to the workplace to coordinating better shift patterns, improved hot-desking, and even pinpointing downtime trends.
“The depth and distinctiveness of profiles that can be built without any direct-identifying personal information is startling,” said Dr. Chris Brauer, who led the study. “Using data gathered from wearable devices, it is possible to develop rich behavioral and lifestyle profiles of individuals and/or employees.”
Data from wearables can also be used to create more accurate, responsive and cost effective health insurance and wellness benefit plans. Perhaps most importantly, wearable data can provide justification for requesting conditions that better align with their individual lives.
Leading health tracker Fitbit is well aware of the market potential of its wearable device. “What we give [employers] is access to real-time data on a corporate dashboard to get visibility into the health of [their employees],” Fitbit Group Health Division leader Amy McDonough told the Financial Times.
What can this visibility yield? Healthplan provider Carewise Health offers a wellness program to clients that includes a Fitbit, and the company found that engaged participants’ healthcare costs increased by a mere 0.7% each year, compared with a whopping 24% for less engaged participants.
Wearable devices are also poised to transform warehouse and factory environments.
In fact, in a recent trial, augmented reality (AR) glasses improved DHL’s picking process by 25 percent, by scanning bar codes more efficiently and reducing the rate of human error. Engineers at Boeing and Tesla also wear Google Glasses to access complex instructions, speeding up the assembly process through hands-free and voice or gesture controlled interactions.
In manual labor environments, wearables have significant impact on workforce safety, from high-visibility vests fitted with GPS that alert workers when they’re entering a dangerous zone, to exoskeletons that take the strain off of heavy lifting.
An Australian public-private coalition, SmartCap, detects employee brain activity and delivers data to workers about fatigue levels, which can also be monitored by managers. Such devices can be used to avoid accidents caused by tiredness, benefiting truck drivers, machine operators, and other manual laborers.
As with all new technology, workplace wearables present a suite of challenges, both practical and ethical.
Practically, analyzing the abundance of data generated by wearables is a task that requires special expertise. As Guillaume Roques, head of developer relations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Salesforce, told Bloomberg: “Wearables are not useful on their own. They have to be part of the move toward a system of intelligence, which combines big data, the cloud and analytics. Connecting them all together is a big challenge.”
Ethically, business and technology leaders must be able to manage the very fine line between monitoring and surveillance. The darker side of wearables at work is that employees may not be comfortable with their bosses knowing specific types of personal information, such as how much sleep they had. In order for workplace wearables to be trusted, new policies and guidelines must be established in order to overcome the gaps in data transparency and security.