Where are we with wearables in the digital workplace?

Steve Bynghall's picture


Photo of a Fitbit fitness tracker

When wearable tech took a step backwards with the failure, of Google Glass, there was perhaps a perception that the widespread adoption of wearable technology within the digital workplace had stalled.  The 2015 Gartner Emerging Technology Hype Cycle also suggested wearables were just passing through the “Peak of inflated expectations” and were about to tumble into the “Trough of disillusionment.”

Actually advances in workplace wearables do not appear to have slowed down, with a variety of wearables seeming to be making advances for different uses across a number of industries.

Interestingly, wearables didn’t appear on the Gartner’s 2016 cycle, and now even has it’s own hype cycle which lists the enormous potential uses and types of wearables available to consumers from smart contact lenses to a perspiration analysis patch. While Gartner warns that “most wearables are still exploratory products” there is not only widespread consumer take-up (e.g. smart watches and fitness trackers) but also significant activity within the workplace.

Why workplace wearables?

Workplace wearables are put in place for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Increasing the well-being, engagement and productivity of individual employees, which in turn is good for the companies that employee them
  • Monitoring physical movement and activity in work environments to produce data which organisations can use to improve processes and drive efficiency
  • To enable employees to more easily carry out their role, usually in a factory, retail or field setting by either collecting or sending information or data
  • To improve health and safety
  • To monitor other data to improve processes
  • For sheer convenience for individual employees

There’s clearly a long way to go for widespread workplace adoption but workplace wearables seem likely to be a significant component in the future digital workplace as:

  • Companies take advantage of the “Internet of Things”
  • Consumer adoption continues to increase
  • Technology develops, for example around smart clothes
  • Companies experiment with pilots and proof of concept
  • Start-ups emerge
  • More established product ranges mature

However, there are also some significant issues which need to be resolved around ethics and data privacy.

Nine types of workplace wearables

In the digital workplace community, the focus has tended to be on smartwatches and glasses, but the use of wearable tech is much wider. Here’s nine types of wearable that may already be operating in your organisation or coming to a workplace near you soon!

 1. Virtual Reality headsets

VR is already here and being used by different organisations. For example, engineering firm MWH Global uses VR to showcase environments to clients before they get built, in order to minimise the risks of expensive alterations further down the line.

2. Smart glasses

Google Glass may have flopped because Google forgot glasses were also a fashion item, but the use case for the workplace is much clearer. Smart glasses can be used to create “augmented reality”, relaying useful information to engineers and others using machinery within their field of view, but in a way which allows engineers to operate hands-free but doesn’t necessarily distract them from the task in hand.

Schneider Electric has tested this use with engineers through smart glasses which enable engineers to see relevant data about the machine their working on. Small precision engineering firm ITAMCO have also done something similar with Google Glass. I interviewed Joel Niedig from ITAMCO a couple of years ago and their experiments were truly ground-breaking.

3. Headphones and microphone

Audio is an essential dimension of the digital workplace which often gets neglected or forgotten. Headsets with microphone and headphones are, arguably, the first wearable in the office. With smart headphones now hitting the consumer world, this  may be an area for innovation. (There are likely to be advances already happening, for example in call centres.)

4. Other headgear

There are obvious other uses for headgear such as safety helmets and hats. General Electric has been developing smart helmets for field workers to allow them to communicate with more experienced employees to guide them through tasks or give assistance.  Meanwhile Smartcaps is a commercially- available wearable which helps to monitor fatigue for drivers and those operating machinery.

5. Fitness trackers

Fitness trackers – usually as wristbands, watches or a clip-on item – are very popular in the consumer space. Corporates have been supplying these to employees as part of well-being programmes for a while, with the potential to increase productivity, reduce absenteeism through sick days and reduce insurance bills. Research has suggested that fitness trackers can enable savings of up to $1000 per employee and also that 1 in 3 large companies are already offering this, with more to follow over the next two years.

6. Name badges

Name badges have been used as a convenient place to put a chip to derive data about employee movements. For example, the Bank of America used name badges to find out that the most productive workers took work breaks together, enabling it to follow through with a policy which had benefits across the board. Meanwhile Fujitsu’s “internet of thing” range of sensors includes a name badge product.

7. Smart clothes

The potential for different smart clothes, particularly for health and safety reasons or to suit different roles, is interesting. South Korean steel giant POSCO has been experimenting with sensors in employee’s safety vests to monitor heart rate, body temperature and other factors, as well as GPS to locate individuals during emergencies. Footwear also may have applications. Thankfully no one’s come up with a convincing workplace use case for smart underpants yet, although there have been some “interesting” ideas in the consumer world!

8. Smart watches

The popularity of smart watches with consumers makes this a prime candidate for enterprise use. However, the take-up of enterprise applications on the Apple Watch seems very low. Some companies are going ahead with more focused uses. For example. Tata Steel in India has been piloting a smart watch with crane operators which monitors health and environmental risks, and also issues warnings.  POSCO has also run a pilot using smart watches to broadcast warnings when there are emergencies such as a gas leak.

9. Human beings

Personally, I find this idea abhorrent for many reasons, but perhaps I am being narrow-minded.  Some companies such as Swedish start-up Epicenter is now micro-chipping employees, albeit on a completely voluntary basis. A small chip embedded between the thumb and index finger can be used to open doors. There are even monthly parties where employees can join the 150 who have already been chipped.  Some might see human beings as the ultimate wearable, but I believe this is a step too far, with highly questionable ethics.

Where we are with wearables

Wearables feel like they will end up as a significant component of the digital workplace, particularly where there are non-deskbound jobs and they support specialist roles such as field engineers or operators of heavy machinery.

Clearly we’re still at the experimental and early adopter stage for enterprise wearables and the internet of things, but decision-makers would be wise to factor wearables in as part of their thinking when considering the scope of their future digital workplace ecosystem and the related opportunities.

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