Wearable technology is experiencing a serious boom. By some estimates, the market is set to be worth US$34-billion by 2020, representing around 411-million devices.
In all likelihood, most of those devices will be smart watches and fitness trackers, worn on the wrist. They’re just the beginning though. In the coming years, we’ll see a rapid uptake in smart eyewear, jewellery, and clothes.
Given both of those things, it seems inevitable that wearables will have substantial impact on the workplace.
Perhaps the biggest impact though will be in employee healthcare.
What the early adopters have learned
Certainly, a number of companies have already embraced the opportunity to use wearables for health and wellness.
Buffer, for instance, gives each of its staff a Jawbone Up fitness tracker. What the employees do with the device is largely up them, but many share notes of encouragement on each other’s UP readings.
That’s important, because if you’re going to reap the kind of benefits you want by encouraging the use of wearables – healthier, more active employees taking fewer sick days – you can’t just dole the devices out and hope for the best.
That desire to be active has to be ingrained within a supportive company culture. It’s also worth remembering that people are more likely to react favourably to something their peers have found positive than they are to a directive given from above.
Don’t be creepy
That kind of scenario can only happen, however, if companies don’t come over all creepy and demand access to the data generated by these wearables.
As Flabuless co-founder Jaya Maru told us in a 2016 interview:
“If people are healthier, then you’re addressing two very big objectives: you’re trying to bring up productivity within the organisation and you’re managing your healthcare costs in a proactive way. So, when [employees] are healthier, they go to the doctor less frequently and your premiums come down and, again, it’s a win-win situation for everybody”.
You’re not going to achieve any of things if people are stressed out about how their data is being used and feel like they need to achieve minimum fitness standards to stay in the boss’ good books.
Sadly though, that’s exactly what can end up happening. Fitness tacker company Fitbit has thousands of corporate customers, and actively sells its devices as a means to tracking an organisation’s general health.
“What we give [employers] is access to real-time data on a corporate dashboard to get visibility into the health of [their employees],” the company’s Amy McDonough told the Financial Times.
From there, the publication reports, “managers can break that information down by location or department and set tasks — either competitive or co-operative — to motivate employees, for example, to move more”.
You only have to think about that for a moment to see how quickly it could go awry.
That said, there are situations where workers would very much prefer that they were constantly monitored. No, we’re not talking about the hypochondriac two desks over from you. We’re talking about people who regularly find themselves in potentially dangerous work environments: emergency service personnel, construction workers, miners, and oil rig hands, for instance.
In these situations, the Financial Times points out, “helmets, watches and visors, bristling with sensors and connected via mobile or satellite transmission to supervisors and control centres, can help alert employees to hazards while keeping them focused on the job at hand”.
“Wearables in hazardous environments are actually quite real today,” Gartner analyst Annette Zimmermann told the paper. “We’re nowhere near blanket adoption yet, but we’re seeing cases that go far beyond pilots in several regions.”
The challenge of adoption
And it’s in those scenarios – where a piece of wearable technology can literally be the difference between life and death – that they’re likely to make the biggest difference.
In your average corporate, where fitness trackers are the wearable category you’re most likely to find, the people who want to use them are those least likely to need them.
“Wearables have done very little to change the behaviour of those individuals they actually need to change,” Yuri Teshler, healthcare practice head at high tech consultants Moor Insights & Strategy told the Financial Times. “Part of the reason is nobody is looking at the problem holistically.”
Even if you dish out the coolest wearables, with the most desirable incentives, they won’t have an impact unless everyone in the company feels like they want to use them.
It’s the reason Buffer’s approach works so well. It makes people feel involved without putting undue pressure on them to conform to some high-level expectation.
“I’m excited about what technology can bring but you have to start with the community,” Dean Carter, vice-president of human resources at adventure clothing company Patagonia told the Financial Times. “If you are trying to get a Fitbit to drive the wellness programme, it’s putting the cart before the horse.”