Wearable tech: What’s its role at work?

Gloria Dunn-Violin is a professional speaker, preretirement seminar leader and author. She writes the North Bay Business Journal column New Retirement: A Paradigm Shift.


Wearable devices are trending in the workplace.

FitBit fitness trackers plus heart monitors and smartwatches started this growing movement just a few years ago. Today they are among the plethora of accessories used to benefit workers and their employers by monitoring everything from health and safety to productivity.

These self-tracking devices are used to acquire biological, physical, behavioral and environmental information. They can detect location, temperature, and even mood data in addition to tracking heart rate and the number of steps taken. All of this data can provide employers with a clear picture of their workers’ health, and give employees ideas on how to modify behavior and lifestyle choices outside of work to improve performance.

Many companies encourage staff to use fitness trackers and other devices as part of employee well-being programs. Some even experiment with using wearables to improve the way employees perform their jobs.

A researcher on wearable tech told BizTech magazine that employers tap into the data to boost worker performance:

Businesses are looking to technology to measure workers’ activities, creating a more productive and efficient workforce, says Dr. Phoebe Moore, a senior lecturer at Middlesex University in London who has done extensive research on the subject.

The growing initiative, called the “quantified self at work” or the “quantified workplace,” comes in many forms, Moore says. In some cases, businesses equip employees with wearable sensors that track their movements and speech patterns. Through data analysis, employers then look for trends and make adjustments aimed at boosting performance — perhaps, by redesigning office spaces to encourage communication and collaboration. (“Want to Improve Employee Productivity? Wearables Could Be the Answer” by Wylie Wong, Feb. 10, 2017)

Wearable technologies could provide a new means for employers to tackle the challenges they associate with an aging workforce.

One example is Lee Co., a Nashville-based building-maintenance business, according to Forbes magazine.

“We don’t have the seasoned technicians we once had, the brain trust we need,” says Richard Perko, president of Lee Co. Equally problematic, he adds, is that workers nearing retirement aren’t always suited to climb up to a roof where mechanical equipment is often stored.

That’s why Perko is building a central command center to preserve his company’s institutional knowledge. The idea? Assemble that brain trust of gray-haired experts to help, with the aid of technology, less experienced employees in the field. The younger workers wear special safety glasses equipped with a camera, microphone, speaker, detachable flash drive, and wireless antenna. Through a Bluetooth connection to their phone, the fieldworkers transmit a live video feed of their actions back to the command center. A veteran watches and gives further instruction.

… Problems get fixed faster, the younger workers learn faster…. (“Wearable Technology: ‘Search: How do I punch this rivet hole?’” by Erin Griffith, Oct. 9, 2014)

Having computers literally close at hand is a boon to employees in the field, according to internet of things news site PTC.

“Wearables in the enterprise have the most immediate applicability to field-based workers, especially those that work for utilities, communications service providers, capital equipment, or even traveling healthcare workers,” says Mike Karlskind, vice president of product marketing for ClickSoftware field employees. (“Wearable Tech Increases Productivity & Safety for Mobile Workers,” Jerry Fireman, Dec. 19, 2014)

At the same time, new applications for wearable technology are being designed for broader use. One example is in medical settings where doctors spend much of their time recording data using a clipboard or iPad. With smart glasses they can use voice commands to enter the data and give patients more time and attention.

But will employees welcome the adoption of wearable technology in the workplace? The Workforce Institute at Kronos and Harris Poll surveyed more than 9,000 people across eight countries. They found that 73 percent of respondents thought that wearable technology could benefit the workplace through efficiency, productivity and safety.

Although wearables have great advantages for both employers and staff, it can also be perceived with some trepidation. Some employees may have concerns around privacy. But data is subject to protection and if employers do opt to collect data through an aggregation tool, it is at an anonymous, organizational level. Employers can help dispel misconceptions via thorough and transparent communication about how wearable technology works and why it is being made available to staff.