With the advent of smartwatches and Fitbits, wearable technology has jumped from the pages of science fiction novels into the real world. This versatile category of technology can be used in a vast number of ways, especially in the workplace.
Whether it's monitoring employee safety, helping to boost productivity, or encouraging healthier lifestyles to reduce health care costs, wearables offer great promise for today's workers. So, of course, businesses are clamoring to find ways to incorporate wearables into their daily operations.
Wearables are far from ubiquitous in the workplace just yet. While the technology has developed quickly, businesses remain hesitant to integrate them into their everyday operations.
"It really is very early in the game; we haven't seen widespread adoption yet, but expect to see more," said Kirstin Simonson, cyberlead for Travelers Global Technology. "People are struggling to determine what their [return on investment] is going to be."
Many smaller businesses, in particular, opt to focus on stronger network security, the internet of things, and other technological advancements first, she said, so wearables may fall to the wayside. Still, the wearables industry is growing quickly. According to a report on wearables from the International Data Corp. (IDC), shipments of wearable devices are projected to increase to 101.9 million by the end of 2016, a 29 percent rate of growth over 2015. Moreover, IDC anticipates as many as 213.6 million units shipped by 2020.
"Unlike the smartphone, which consolidated multiple technologies into one device, the wearables market is a collection of disparate devices," Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers, said. "Watches and bands are and always will be popular, but the market will clearly benefit from the emergence of additional form factors, like clothing and eyewear, that will deliver new capabilities and experiences."
Business applications for wearable tech
Here are just a few ways businesses are already using wearables, as well as what the future might hold for these devices.
One of the top reasons cited in favor of adopting wearable tech is its ability to streamline normal business operations and improve a company's productivity. Whether it's a pair of smart glasses that help guide a warehouse employee along the most efficient route or sensors that help employees more quickly reference needed information to complete a task, wearables allow businesses to improve efficiency in task management.
"Long gone are the days of … time wasted sifting through emails for info or searching out team members for communication," Franklin Valadares, CTO and co-founder of Runrun.it, said. "Businesses have all of this information and communication through the wearable technology. Employees are able to 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."
By monitoring employee activity or helping to guide workers through potentially dangerous tasks, wearables help empower employers and managers to prevent workplace accidents before they happen. Not only does that save the employee a world of hurt, but it also saves the company time and money.
"[Wearables can] help workers be safer, for example, either around chemicals, lifting something, or climbing towers," Simonson said. "They're able to monitor how your body is reacting to these conditions and determine whether or not you might need to do something differently."
Health and wellness
Many companies are offering employees fitness trackers, coupled with incentive programs, to encourage healthier lifestyles both in and out of the workplace. Healthier employees are often more productive and less frequently absent, and can save their employers on health care costs. Fitbit offers one such corporate wellness program to partner with companies trying to promote employee well-being.
"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," Amy McDonough, vice president and general manager of Fitbit Group Health, said. The advent of wearable devices has 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 in the form of targeted advertising and simplified payment services through the use of "near-field communication" (NFC) chips.
"I might walk into a store and the wearable device I have goes that step further to bring some kind of [augmented reality advertisement] into focus," Simonson said, using an ad for bedsheets as an example.
With the addition of an NFC chip, which could be worn on a wristband or even embedded under the skin, customers can transmit data needed for payment, such as credit card info, directly to the store's point-of-sale 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 said. "Those people are walking into these stores, so how will that drive businesses to adopt?"
Wearable tech is not without its drawbacks, however. As the market grows, many are troubled by the implications wearables hold for network security. Filip Chytry, a threat intelligence researcher for Avast! Software, said the security risks surrounding wearable devices are many, especially if their connection to a company's network is improperly configured.
"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 said. "It's really easy to intercept the data."
That means 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, he said, because although they are designed to only communicate at a short distance, a savvy hacker can find ways around that and abscond with highly sensitive information.
As if those doomsday scenarios weren't frightening enough, even those devices that are encrypted remain difficult to secure, according to Chytry.
"It's really hard to update the software for most wearables," he said. "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 advised employers who want to embrace wearables to create BYOD (bring your own device) policies that only allow access in certain places for certain devices.
"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]. Create separate policies and rules for each of the devices," he said.
Simonson echoed Chytry's concerns. Isolating wearable devices within separate parts of the network is imperative, she said.
"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 said. "It's not as simple as just hooking it up to 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."
If you can maintain proper control over your network, wearables have the power to dramatically change your business operations for the better. The technology continues to evolve and more businesses are adopting wearables, so learning to manage the risks today will give you a leg up on the competition tomorrow.