Wearable technology--what's right for your workplace?

Industry Insider

By Bill Bartow

Wearable technology is an exciting new trend in the consumer world today, and is quickly revolutionizing the way many of us access information or accomplish various daily tasks. Given this early success and adoption, it's not surprising that many believe this new technology is poised to take the workplace by storm.

While it's safe to say that most organizations are just starting to learn about wearable technology or to think of it as a workplace tool, it is also clear that today's innovators will quickly figure out a way to use it to their advantage. In doing so, chances are also good that they'll reap a number of significant benefits along the way: reduced costs, increased efficiencies and a more nimble, productive workforce of employees better able to deliver superior goods and services.

Yet if wearable technology represents a brand new day for these organizations, the sun is just beginning to rise. As a result, many technology executives may have far more questions than answers as they begin to devise the strategy that's right for them.

What Wearable Technology?

Many of may think of wearable technology as images of Captain Kirk tapping a communications monitor on his uniform and asking the U.S.S. Enterprise to beam him back to safety.  Not quite. Instead, think of wearable technologies in several broad categories:

Smart devices such as Google Glass and watches like the InPulse Smart Notification Watch that allows people to view information in a new way--and on the go.

Health monitors such as the FitBit, FuelBand and Jawbone that collect and analyze physical data often to understand, monitor and maximize physical activity and improve wellness.

Medical devices that continually monitor biometric indicators such as blood sugar levels or pulse rates to adjust treatment for various illnesses and health deficiencies like diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, etc.

Tethered devices that are an extension of a smartphone, such as a Bluetooth biometric sensor acting as a heart monitor.

Is Wearable Technology Right for the Workplace?

Many experts believe that this technology is ready to take off in the workplace, and that it could have a potentially significant and pervasive impact on the economy. Additionally, some research has forecast that smart watches and other wearable devices could be a $50 billion market by 2017.

With examples such as these, some experts believe that wearable technology will more quickly become adopted in the workplace than by consumers. But employers will have to take care to avoid the perception that this is an attempt to monitor employees or intrude on their privacy.

Still, employees may be more receptive to the idea than you may think. After all, the concept of wearable technology is not exactly new. Employee badges, package-tracking devices, and healthcare tablets are all examples of technology that employees have already embraced as part of their daily work lives. If employees experience real benefits from using wearable technology on the job--such as recognition from management or improved personal productivity--chances are good that they will embrace it.

What are Some Use Cases for Wearable Technology in the Workplace?

For the most part, wearable technology is still in the trial or concept phase. But we can already see some very real examples of how this wearable technology could transform the work environment. The following examples illustrate the business impact wearable technology could have in the next decade.

Monitor fatigue in nursing staff: Nurse fatigue is clearly a challenge in healthcare, yet most organizations don't have a solution. For example, nearly 65 percent of participants reported that they almost made an error at work because of fatigue, and more than 27 percent acknowledged that they actually had made an error resulting from fatigue.[1] ("Nurse Staffing Strategy," HealthLeaders Media Intelligence Unit, HealthLeaders Media Council, March 2013.)

Wearable technology could provide a solution to nurse fatigue. For example, as the technology evolves, all nurses could wear bracelets that monitor their most critical vital signs, including fatigue. A nurse manager could have a real-time summary or dashboard highlighting the overall "health" of all nurses on a particular shift. If nurse falls below a certain fatigue threshold, the nurse manager could quickly decide to send the nurse home--before a potential incident could occur.

Improve manufacturing processes: In manufacturing, employees could use a smart wristband that is "aware of their location on the floor. As the employee enters the facility, the wristband could "punch" them in for the day and then direct them to the work cell where they have been assigned.

Such a device could combine the location-tracking functionality with data associated with traditional manufacturing punches to provide managers with instant information about the employee's work. For example, what are they working on? Are there productivity issues? Are they falling behind? Armed with this information, supervisors can react in real-time to potential issues and optimize business outcomes.

Increase sales in retail: Many retailers today use cameras to detect the volume and flow of customer traffic. If associates were equipped with wearable devices, store managers would know exactly where they were, and could then reassign underutilized staff to areas of the store experiencing higher volumes of traffic.

All of this would go a long way to increase sales, basket size and customer satisfaction. And if the store experienced a spike in high-spender customers, a manager could immediately transfer the best sales associates to greet and personally assist these loyal customers as they shop.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Of course, there is still a lot of conjecture on how this will play out, and there are a few challenges that must be tackled. Wearable technology is clearly here, and here to stay. The technology is only going to get better and more prevalent in the months and years ahead. Companies of all sizes and in all industries would be wise to build plans now to take advantage of all that this new technology has to offer.

About the author: Bill Bartow is vice president, global product management at Kronos Incorporated, a global provider of workforce management solutions.