Workplace wearables: What you need to know

Clare Hopping

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Wearables in the workplace have existed for a number of years now, in the form of smartwatches, fitness bands and glasses. The pace of evolution is rapidly increasing, and today the term ‘wearable’ means more than a connected watch that measures your health. In fact, the impact these devices are having is already outstripping the consumer-centric functions they were first designed to conquer. What kind of impact will these new devices have on the way we work?

The benefits of wearables in the workplace

Some businesses are using wearables to measure the health and wellbeing of their employees, collecting data such as the number of steps they walk in a day, their quality of sleep and heart rate. This can then help managers assess whether their employees are taking adequate breaks from their computer or are under unnecessary pressure. They are then able to take action and this can have a positive impact on employee wellbeing, resulting in more motivated, productive staff.

Wearables can also assess the risks of employees in environments where safety is paramount, such as workers on a building site, a carer in the community and traffic wardens, paramedics or police. Body cameras can record interactions, while other wearable sensors can assess the environmental conditions and alert wearers when there’s a dangerous situation.

The applications that work alongside wearables are almost as important as the wearables themselves. Choosing the right apps for employees can significantly increase operational efficiencies, meaning day-to-day tasks can be carried out more efficiently.

Wearable technologies don’t just collect data about the person wearing them, but can also help with stock control and the wider supply chain. This ensures managers can keep track of what’s happening in the warehouse, providing more transparency of a business operation.

Barriers to adoption

With wearables overlapping in their function with smartphones and tablets, organisations don’t necessarily see the value in implementing a wearables strategy. If the company has already rolled out smartphones that can track the health of their employees, introducing wearables is simply another cost to the organisation.

Even if a company rolls out wearables, there’s no guarantee employees will use them. There are also issues of privacy. If a company is collecting data generated by wearables, it needs to be safeguarded against leaks and permission must be sought from employees. So what needs to change?

Where the future lies

Wearables need to be cheaper, less intrusive and more useful to both employees and employers, and tech innovators need to lead the development of products to meet these needs.

Another key to the success of wearables is that they don’t just cover everyday items like smartwatches. Manufacturers need to start looking at more business-led applications that will make the transition easier for businesses.

This is starting to happen, with developers integrating a wider range of sensors into wearables, taking inspiration from connected car technologies (one area that’s moving faster than almost any other tech trend) that can detect when a driver is falling asleep and when there’s a hazard approaching or an issue with the vehicle.

These sensors can be rolled out to a variety of applications, including replacing the security of a device. For example, a wearable could measure a person’s heartbeat, pulse or – even more uniquely – ear cavity pressure via earphones to use this to unlock a device. Wellbeing can also be gauged by more sophisticated sensors that can measure the chemicals in your blood via your breath.

Take Google’s Tango tech, for example, which integrates a huge array of sensors to measure parameters from the environment around the user and applies this to augmented reality. At CES in January, Google and Lenovo showed off the first consumer phone that will use the technology, and it’s being rolled out in international markets right now. This means users can build up a real-world experience, but with additional information inputted by the app. Although smartphones are the first device to use this tech, there’s huge scope for wearables to adopt the same principles.

With sensors being developed that can be integrated into fabrics, glasses, even contact lenses, to measure almost any movement, condition or personal property, the way the data can be used will also become more beneficial to both the end user and the business.