When we think about wearable computing, consumery things like Fitbit and Google Glass come to mind. But those aren't the only doodads people can have on their persons, especially in the workplace. And don't scoff – wearables in the workplace are coming, and it's not just for peoples' amusement. There can be real benefits to a company.
According to the State of Workplace Productivity report released by Cornerstone OnDemand, and conducted by Kelton, while only 12 percent of employees currently use some sort of wearable on the job (of whom 71 percent say they improve productivity), two-thirds are willing to do so if they believe it will help them with their jobs. In fact, 72 percent of respondents expect wearables will become standard in the workplace.
Even more interesting: 80 percent of respondents said they'd be motivated to use company-supplied health and wellness monitoring devices and allow their employers to access the data, in exchange for benefits such as bonuses, lower cost health insurance, or discounts on exercise programs. And 76 percent said they'd wear productivity trackers if given benefits like an extra five percent bonus, or an extra day off each month, a flexible schedule, or a reduced work week.
With a sample size of just over 2000, those results are telling; Kelton says that there's a 95 percent probability that the survey's margin of error is no more than 2.2 percent. This means that, had it been conducted among the entire universe represented (all working Americans over 18), results would not vary more than 2.2 percent from the research, with, of course, the caveat that when you look at subgroups, the error margin could be larger.
For some occupations, wearables are a matter of safety. Firefighters, for example, can now wear sensors that allow their chief to see if they're in distress while fighting a fire, making it more likely someone injured or overcome by smoke can be rescued and treated. Equipping police officers with wearable cameras is becoming more common as well, both to preserve records of interactions with citizens as lawsuits around incidents increase, and to keep track of them in the course of their duties.
For others, the technology is used in surprising ways. Bank of America diagnosed problems with call centre productivity by equipping its employees with ID badges containing sensors that measured their social interactions in the workplace. It discovered that more social employees were more productive.
The badges were developed by Sociometric Solutions, a company born out of MIT's Media Lab, and designed to help companies improve by analyzing communication patterns. They not only contain RFID tags (to determine the wearer's location), they have microphones that detect speech patterns (but not the actual conversation), and accelerometers to measure movement.
The company's website describes the product this way:
The Sociometric Badge is our flagship social sensing platform. Using a variety of sensors, the Sociometric Badge is capable of capturing face-to-face interactions, extracting social signals from speech and body movement, and measuring the proximity and relative location of users.
We combine these with other data sources such as electronic communications, objective productivity metrics, and spatial analysis to provide unprecedented insights on how complex work gets done in the modern organization.
Using this platform, we help organizations unlock the potential of their people, and develop iterative and disruptive innovations to match their evolving business demands.
A series of dashboards allow employers to see productivity trends and how their organization compares to other companies, and give employees information to help them become more effective.
There are also arguments to be made for wearables like Google Glass in occupations where people need both hands free. For example, a technician could use a voice-controlled headset-mounted display to check specs, manuals, and blueprints while working on a repair – in fact, Bell Canada experimented with pre-Glass technology from Xybernaut Corp (now defunct) for just that purpose over a decade ago, but the tech was too cumbersome at the time.
However, even if the technology is now usable, we have a long way to go before it can be safely deployed. Why? Two words: security and privacy.
In the rush towards the cool toys, vendors and consumers have often neglected to ensure that the information collected by these devices is properly protected. It is often transmitted over unencrypted connections, stored in unsecured locations, and not managed in any way. It may be fine for an employer to look at data collected by a fitness band or productivity monitor, but what if a competitor got hold of it and used the information inappropriately? Maybe it could pass selected data to the employer's health insurer to raise its healthcare costs, or cherry-pick the most productive employees and poach them. What if a scammer used the data to prey on employees, or to trick them into granting access to company data?
In addition, employees can be their own worst enemies. Using Glass and its ilk, employees could inadvertently (or deliberately, if the employee is up to no good) record confidential information and send it off to unsecured cloud storage, with no-one the wiser until the data turns up where it shouldn't be. Or data transmitted to and from a Glass-like display could be intercepted – and if it's corporate IP, that could open the door to corporate espionage, with its associated financial impact.
There's lots more potential for evil unless vendors secure their products, and make them manageable so companies can protect both their employees and their intellectual property. And wearables in the workplace can't become pervasive until those issues are dealt with. Even if companies are willing to accept the risk, you can bet their lawyers and insurance companies won't!