Wearable technology, like Fitbits and smartwatches, has jumped from the pages of science fiction novels into the real world. This versatile technology category can be used in myriad ways, especially in the workplace.
Whether it’s monitoring employee safety, helping to boost productivity or encouraging healthier lifestyles to reduce healthcare costs, wearables offer enormous promise for today’s workers. We’ll look at business applications for wearable technology and share advice about handling its risks and drawbacks.
Wearable technology is a broad term referring to a large constellation of smart devices. These devices can differ significantly in size, shape, where they’re worn on the body, and their overall function.
However, all wearable technology shares a common goal and underpinning. This category includes small, sensor-filled devices that can be worn. While these devices can collect and store data about the wearer’s body or environment, that data is also shared with additional devices, such as a user’s smartphone or the device manufacturer’s server.
Typical examples of personal wearable devices include the following:
While all these devices can be used in business settings, numerous wearables cater specifically to niche and job-specific roles, including the following:
Here are just a few ways businesses are already using wearables and embracing technology for a competitive advantage.
One of the top reasons to adopt wearable tech is its ability to streamline routine business operations and improve productivity. Whether it’s smart glasses that guide a warehouse employee along the most efficient route or sensors that help employees quickly reference the information needed to complete a task, wearables allow businesses to boost efficiency in task management.
“Long gone are the days of … time wasted sifting through emails for info or searching out team members for communication,” said Franklin Valadares, chief product officer and co-founder of Runrun.it. “Businesses have all of this information and communication through the wearable technology. Employees can alert their managers or teams when they have started or stopped [a task], attached files, etc., thus increasing the communication lines and overall productivity of business today.”
Because wearables can monitor employee activity and guide workers through potentially dangerous tasks, they empower teams and managers to prevent workplace accidents before they happen. Preventing workplace accidents saves employees a world of hurt while saving the company time and money.
“[Wearables can] help workers be safer, for example, either around chemicals, lifting something, or climbing towers,” explained Kirstin Simonson, cyberlead for Travelers Global Technology. “They’re able to monitor how your body reacts to these conditions and determine whether or not you might need to do something differently.”
Many companies provide employees with fitness trackers as a job perk. They’re often part of employee health and wellness plans that encourage healthier lifestyles in and out of the workplace. Healthier employees are often more productive, absent less, and save their employers money on health care costs.
For example, Fitbit offers a corporate wellness program in partnership with companies that want to promote employee well-being. The idea is to provide data-driven insights that can prompt change.
“Everything starts with the data. Data not only provides key insights into an individual’s health and helps drive behavior changes that lead to better health outcomes but, at a macro level, it can also provide much larger trends about population health,” explained Amy McDonough, managing director and general manager of Fitbit Health Solutions at Google. “Wearable devices have revolutionized our ability to collect and track health data on a much larger scale.”
Wearable tech is also changing how consumers interact with businesses. Businesses are exploring wearables through targeted advertising and simplified payment services using near-field communication (NFC) chips — the same technology that powers NFC mobile payments.
“I might walk into a store, and the wearable device I have goes [one] step further to bring some kind of [augmented reality advertisement] into focus,” Simonson said.
With an NFC chip, which could be worn on a wristband or even embedded under the skin, customers can transmit payment data, such as credit card info, directly to a store’s point-of-sale (POS) system.
“Consumers are excited about things that can make the world more engaging for them, and they’re more prone to early adoption than small businesses are,” Simonson noted. “Those people are walking into these stores, so how will that drive businesses to adopt?”
While wearable technology promises to help workers become healthier and more productive, businesses should understand the drawbacks of this technology.
Many are troubled by the impact of wearables on network security. IT security consultant Filip Chytry said the security risks surrounding wearable devices are many, especially if their connection to a company’s network is improperly configured. For example, connected medical device security is a concern.
“Most wearables have a lack of encryption, so if it’s communicating with a cellphone or local network, it’s not using the strongest encryption possible; some are using none,” Chytry warned. “It’s really easy to intercept the data.”
Without encryption, hackers could potentially infiltrate a business’s network and usurp sensitive documents or even audio and video recorded by smart glasses. The same goes for NFC chips; while they’re designed to communicate only at short distances, a savvy hacker can find ways to abscond with highly sensitive information.
As if those doomsday scenarios weren’t frightening enough, even encrypted devices remain challenging to secure.
“It’s really hard to update the software for most wearables,” Chytry explained. “Theoretically, you have a big variety of devices, and each is different, so it’s really hard to protect the entire ecosystem.”
So, what’s the solution? Chytry advises employers who want to embrace wearables while maintaining robust cybersecurity to create BYOD (bring your own device) policies that only allow access to certain devices in specific places.
“For example, with the glasses … create a separate channel outside of the company network so nobody will have access to local servers and the local devices [if they are hacked],” Chytry advised. “Create separate policies and rules for each of the devices.”
Simonson agrees that isolating wearable devices within separate parts of the network is imperative.
“From a network perspective, you need to make decisions about what the device needs to be connected to and what it doesn’t need to be connected to, and then separating one from the other,” Simonson noted. “It’s not as simple as just hooking it up to the internet. What does it need to talk to, why does it need to talk to that, how do you manage access? It’s the same conversation you need to have regarding anything else.”
Wearables can gather a vast amount of data, which presents ongoing privacy concerns. For personal use, wearers may worry about companies logging sensitive data, including heart rates, sleep tracking information, activity levels, body temperatures, and, in some devices, possible reproductive cycle tracking.
Wearable manufacturers may share information with third-party researchers and companies. In some cases, consumers don’t realize their information is being shared and may find themselves receiving targeted advertising. When personal information is collected and stored in cloud-hosted environments, there’s also a fear of health record data breaches by cybercriminals.
Privacy concerns may be magnified when users wear wearable devices their employers provide.
While costs are decreasing, deploying wearables still presents a significant expense for employers. This is particularly true for cutting-edge technology like vision-assisting smart glasses.
However, the breakeven point for these technologies will likely come faster than generally expected as adoption rates and associated productivity gains are quickly realized. For instance, a VDC Research whitepaper found that adopting ProGlove hands-free scanners increased productivity by 30 percent. This, in turn, led to a return on investment for adopters within six months.
While wearables are becoming more mainstream, wearable users are still in the minority. Based on projections from eMarketer, an estimated 27.2 percent of the U.S. population will be wearable users by 2025. This shows continued year-over-year growth from 23.3 percent of the population using wearables in 2021.
However, the overall small number of wearable adopters within the market may lead to employee hesitancy if businesses start demanding their workers use this technology. This hesitancy is likely to arise from the unfamiliarity of the technology among many workers, as well as concerns over issues like data and health record privacy.
Still, overall employee hesitancy will likely diminish as wearable tech’s benefits become more apparent. Workers are more likely to react positively to wearables that increase their overall efficiency and make their jobs easier, such as wearable glasses or scanners.
It appears that wearables will continue bleeding out of the pages of science fiction into everyday life at an increasing pace. Consumers are increasingly using wearables for personal reasons at continued year-over-year growth rates.
As consumers become more comfortable using wearables for a range of activities, the benefits of these devices in business will become more apparent. Wearables have the power to dramatically change your business operations for the better. The technology continues to evolve, and more businesses are adopting wearables; learning to manage their risks will give you a leg up on the competition.
Adam Uzialko contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.