Wearable devices - now a reality for the workplace

There has been a lot of hype about wearable technologies mostly focusing on smart glasses, watches and heath wristbands for consumers, but it is likely that there will be far more compelling reasons to use wearable devices in the enterprise. Here, wearable devices, perhaps often in combination with sensors and other interaction from the internet of things (IoT) will provide greater context and granularity of information and control.

The overall reasons that should drive this are less to do with fad and fashion and much more oriented around efficiency and effectiveness for the organisation. That is not to say that employees will not gain some advantage. Safety, security and wellbeing are all potential benefits for wearers of smart devices, and these might be recognised as such by employees if presented correctly – or indeed if the employees’ consumer experiences motivate them to buy in to the style and innovation.

At a recent event hosted by TBS Mobility and Samsung, several very interesting case studies emerged that demonstrated a combination of the innovation and clear business value from wearable device use. These could be effectively applied in many other sectors and organisations, but there are some challenges to address.

The primary reasons for wearable devices are to gain access to IT resources without encumbering the user and getting in the way of the task in hand. So many other items of technology involve varying degrees of significant physical commitment – sitting down to use a desktop or laptop, two hands to use a tablet while standing and even cradling a smartphone requires a hand and at least one eye or ear.

Something worn on the wrist, accessed by a glance, tap or spoken word not only fits a Dick Tracey wish-list, it also frees up hands, is out of sight and allows the user to be ‘footloose’. In challenging environments this means the user no longer has to be as concerned about losing the device or even be seen to be carrying something of value that might be stolen. 

Tasks that require both hands, looking customers in the eye rather than via the back of a screen or getting help without being noticed are all much simpler. The case studies on the day of the aforementioned event featuring wearable applications already in use – by snow clearance workers at Heathrow airport, shop floor staff in Dixons and lone workers in public sector housing – highlighted that this is not about glitz and glamour, but getting a job done easily and well.

Another related reason to wear is that these devices can be unobtrusive and operate quietly in the background. They can be used to identify, track and monitor automatically without intervention from the user. The information gathered can be analysed on an individual or aggregated level to provide insights into operational processes, or potentially more valuably, used in real time to effect improvements based on changing circumstances as they happen.

Both of these reasons to wear depend on something quite critical – the wearable device must always be worn otherwise it cannot perform its expected function. While it may seem pretty obvious that smartphones and tablets need to be remembered and carried in order to be used, their actual use is intermittent rather than constant. While there may be an expectation of an alert or incoming message at any moment, most applications are dipped into periodically – ie email, messaging, browsing – and are not in constant use.

Applications designed to make use of wearable devices on the other hand expect to be worn and in use for the entire period of operation. The problem is that employees may forget or more worryingly may lack the incentive or might even be hostile to the idea of being constantly ‘plugged in’ and potentially personally monitored. Or, in the case of recording technologies, such as Google Glass, others may be hostile to being recorded.

This highlights the need for the benefits of using wearable devices need to be felt and understood by both employer and employee. For the organisation the benefits should be easily quantifiable as efficiency, but for the individual the value might be indirectly related to the job – eg increased safety for lone workers, eliminating boring or laborious tasks – or the whole concept of wearing devices could be offered by employers based on incentives.

There has been some initial research conducted in this area, especially around promoting health and lifestyle benefits. Employees with devices might get reduced insurance premiums, offers of free gym membership or other incentives based on levels of activity. If that all sounds too Orwellian, some of the research found that employees would be quite happy to be bribed by offers of extra days leave, a straightforward bonus or shorter working hours as payback for wearing a device to track for performance and productivity reasons.

Whatever the incentive – financial or personal wellbeing – the principal is the same; technology that doesn’t get in the way, gathers insights and is devastatingly simple to use can and should bring value to both individual and organisation. There may be some fine-tuning of form factors, a shakeout of frivolous chaff from the worthwhile wheat, and some application development to do, but most organisations should no longer just be thinking ‘mobile’, but also ‘wearable’ when considering how employees, customers and partners interact with IT.