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Wearable tech in the workplace

06 October 2015

How personal technology is changing the working landscape

The most recent proliferation of technology is wearable tech, a market which has exploded this year owing to the launch of the Apple Watch. In its wake, competing tech companies all over the globe are labouring tirelessly to develop their proprietary devices, and it is set to change the way we live, work and communicate.

One of the more personal and widely-adopted uses of wearable technology relates closely to health care. Fitness watches have boomed throughout 2015, tracking and monitoring daily steps, calorie expenditure and distance travelled by foot. For the corporate world, this is creating a natural step towards workforce incentives and rewards. Fit, healthy employees results in reduced absenteeism, higher productivity and lower healthcare expenditure for those offering private healthcare benefits.

According to Gartner around 2,000 companies worldwide offered their staff fitness trackers in 2013, rising to 10,000 in 2014. The firm predicts that by 2016 most companies with more than 500 employees will offer fitness trackers.

Smart wearables for the healthcare industry is looking to be a big and profitable market, and some of these new technologies will be key to optimal operating of society, especially for medical purposes. Innovations involving wearable devices and app compatibility include asthma monitoring, knee braces with sensors, pain relief using electrolodes, consumable tracking pills, crystal technology, Google smart contact lenses, glucose monitoring systems and even a ‘health patch’ which tracks heart rate, breathing, temperature, steps, and even detects body position in case a person has fallen.

Medical devices which enable patients to monitor themselves remotely and yet still be able to communicate directly with medical professionals could potentially alleviate saturated medical services and also prevent chronic illnesses or diseases by detecting and treating them earlier.

For medical professionals, wearable tech will also streamline operational processes, for example, Doctors using Google Glass to perform surgery while simultaneously monitoring a patient’s vital signs and react to changes, without ever having to take their eyes off the procedure or patient.

Research by IDC Insights indicates that by 2018, 70% of healthcare organisations worldwide will invest in consumer-facing technology, including apps, wearables, remote monitoring and virtual care. Analysts PricewaterhouseCoopers also say 80% of consumers believe wearable technology has the potential to make healthcare more convenient, while Soreon Research predicts the wearable healthcare market will grow from $2bn in 2014 to $41bn in 2020.

Wearables also pertain to other unusual physical working environments such as military and industrial sectors. Certain devices can track the position of employees or armed forces and provide real-time data to remote (or on-site) locations and data centres. Such information could then be used to track location, improve efficiency, and manage resources more effectively. In industries with high-risk roles - such as mining and oil and gas - wearables can play a critical role in safety, with remote viewers providing construction advice and sensors to detect alertness.

One of the best established applications for body-worn devices in the workplace is to help streamline logistics. For example:

Tesco gives armbands to staff in one of their major distribution centres which can track goods being transported across 9.6 miles of shelving, eliminating the need to mark clipboards and giving managers estimated completion times.

Wearable Tech Image 1 Wearable devices in the workplace bring novelty and some real challenges too

A similar technology has been adopted by Amazon warehouse workers who scan products through a device on their wrists. For logistics and distribution, this could mean a faster, more streamlined, and more cost-effective global trade network.

 

In the more conventional workplace, wearables enable employees to reduce their dependence on clunky devices and screens, rendering meetings slicker and tasks quicker. Activity is also traceable for employers who work on incentives and rewards based systems; employers can easily collect and analyse employee data using wearable technology, allowing the ability to monitor employees’ performance or establish ways to improve services offered to clients.

In early 2015, workers at an office in Sweden exchanged their building passes for a chip embedded in their hand; access to facilities, the operation of equipment and sharing contact details were then managed with the swipe of a hand. This has been viewed as borderline invasive by some, but could be a trend which rolls out to other organisations for efficiency and traceability.

 

While wearable technology can bring huge benefits, it can also bring significant challenges, particularly as devices start to gather more and more personal and biometric data.

Due to the embryonic stages of this type of technology, some devices don't have the necessary rigorous encryption and other protections to safeguard personal data, which could leave companies exposed to data leaks or theft.

What’s more, wearables are not necessarily useful on their own. For use in the professional sphere, they really need to be part of the move towards a much more comprehensive system of intelligence, which combines big data, the cloud and analytics. Connecting them all together is a big challenge and something that many organisations will face as wearable technology evolves over the coming years.