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Wearables In The Workplace: The opportunities and challenges

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The Internet of Things (IoT) has become one of the most hyped technologies in recent times, with Gartner expecting 25 billion Internet-connected things by 2020.

Wearable devices – which can do everything from help you navigate from A to B, act as a media and communication gadget, synchronize data from other devices and act as a health and fitness tracker – have skyrocketed in popularity. With wearables serving as the primary reason for the popularity of IoT for consumers, the next segment for technology vendors to turn to is the enterprise.

Companies like Fitbit are making inroads with businesses by providing the underlying means for them to plan, track and execute their wellness programs. Huge investments have already been made to develop a growing ecosystem of solutions to power the Apple Watch in the enterprise – Salesforce, for example, is counting on this emerging market opportunity, with more than 20 apps already launched on the Apple Watch.

As technology vendors vie for enterprise wearable market share, they are either developing devices tailored specifically for corporate needs or launching applications that can easily be downloaded to widely-available consumer devices. Wearables will undoubtedly be the next big thing for companies who are already actively exploring and adopting the technology as a new way to support employees. But before taking the plunge, below are some of the key opportunities and challenges that wearables present in the workplace.

The Opportunities for Wearables in the Workplace

Employee Health and Wellness. While fitness wearables are taking off for consumers, there is an opportunity for these devices to play a significant role in the enterprise too. With a recent study noting that “sitting is the new smoking” making global headlines, this sparked realizations that employees should set up notifications about when to take breaks and meals rather than spend too much time sitting at their desks.

For example, Jiff is an application that integrates with brands like Fitbit and Jawbone – and goes one-step further by providing personalized incentives and analytics to lower employee healthcare costs. The benefits are twofold –it gives self-insured employers the chance to save on their healthcare expenses and it also encourages a more positive and energetic workplace culture.

Geo-Location for Projects and Resource Allocation. Wearables can readily support industries with a significant field-based workforce, such as construction, healthcare, and utilities, by tracking their locations to more effectively delegate projects and properly allocate resources.

In the transportation vertical, wearables can keep track of truck drivers to remind them to take breaks while on the road and rest when legally required. Meanwhile, engineers in the utility industry can rely on geo-location data from wearable devices to know how long they have spent working on a specific project and request additional resources if they see that tasks are taking a long time to complete – and even improve labor efficiencies using the information.

Communication and Collaboration. Wearables can help teams with everyday tasks by increasing the ability to communicate and collaborate, cost effectively. For desk-bound contact center staff, for example, a device with an RFID chip could automatically notify a call center agent if someone has stepped away from their desk so that no inbound calls are missed.

Wearables could also provide more enhanced abilities to integrate disparate devices and even save work time by providing employees with a hands-free way to access their email, messages and calendars. The next wave of communication among teams who have greater notification, validation and GPS functionalities will result in tighter collaboration so that tasks run smoother and more efficiently.

The Challenges for Wearables in the Workplace

Personal Privacy and Confidentiality. For employees, concerns over data privacy have never been more prevalent than they are today. Wearable devices can collect such an abundance of personal information that data protection should be at the forefront of business considerations. On one hand, it is understood that wearables need to house personal data in order to provide desired functions (for example, alerts ahead of meetings, heart rates for fitness devices).

On the other hand, what is the limit to the amount of information that an employer can find out about an employee? For example, what are the consequences if someone doesn’t actively take breaks away from the computer? A recent news report found that employee wellness firms and insurers are working with companies to mine data about the prescription drugs workers use and other information to predict individual health needs. How much health data will a wearable display, and to what extent will it remain confidential employee information?

Data Security and Compliance. Similar to the bring your own device (BYOD) movement that created a groundswell a few years ago, many IT security managers are faced with difficulty decisions on how to integrate wearables into the workplace and determine which devices are accessing which systems and data. Currently, many wearables can store and transfer data, but don’t always have the built-in security options such as PIN protection, encryption or user authentication features that are critical for the enterprise. With data breaches being a lucrative business for hackers and others searching for sensitive information, wearables can present the next vulnerable technology.

Distraction. While wearables can deliver significant productivity gains that can support the bottom line, these same devices can also negatively impact productivity, if an excessive amount of time is spent toying with the devices (e.g. looking at emails, reviewing aggregate data) rather than doing work.

HR professionals need to work closely with senior leaders to establish parameters for acceptable wearable use so that workflows are not disrupted. While any new technology introduced into the workforce can take a while to be readily adopted and accepted, businesses should monitor the usage of wearables and revisit its policies as necessary.

The appetite for wearables shows no sign of slowing down – and we can expect to see many new and exciting innovations that businesses can capitalize on to support their overall growth and business goals. Wearables are forcing businesses to think about user-centric workflows in a novel way, and we are still at the onset of its adoption in the enterprise. It will be important for enterprises to consider how to manage these technologies in order to reap the benefits, as well as mitigate potential risks to the business.

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