According to a recent survey from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, we’ve reached the wearable tipping point. The survey reveals that 49% of consumers own at least one wearable device, and 36% own more than one.
In just two years, we’ve gone from one-fifth of the nation having just one wearable to more than one-third owning multiple wearables.
Wearables blossomed into mainstream acceptance through fitness-minded early adopters who wanted to track their heartbeat, steps, and exercise routine. But after helping people decrease their waistline, wearables want to increase their income — which may be achieved by becoming part of your workday.
Wearables At Work
The common wearables you see on people who know exactly how many steps they took yesterday are becoming cost cutting tools for businesses.
According to Kelly Fenol, vice president of operations at Spire Wellness, about 40% to 50% of people who participate in a company wellness program use a Fitbit tracker.
Oil company BP America used Fitbits in order to encourage their tens of thousands of employees to live healthier lifestyles. The program, administered by Staywell Health Management, challenged employees to take one million steps each. Over the course of six months, 23,463 people had their steps monitored by a simple Fitbit Zip.
Activity Monitors At Work: Kinetic
While fitness trackers are the most popular work wearable at the moment, some job-specific wearables are designed to improve work safety and efficiency.
A pioneer in this field is Kinetic, a device that helps workers lift heavy objects like boxes with correct form. Workers who are required to manually pick up and carry heavy weights should ideally do most of the physical work with their legs, rather than their back. Repeated poor lifting increases the risk of serious back injury. The Kinetic guards against back-cramping lifts by attaching to a worker's belt and gently vibrating when they perform a dangerous lift.
In one case study, employees at Crane Worldwide Logistics were equipped with a Kinetic for two weeks. For the first week, the device just monitored lifts. But at the beginning the second week, workers were trained on proper lift technique. Kinetic’s devices vibrated in response to poor lifts, and workers participated in a friendly competition to perform the fewest number of dangerous lifts per day.
As a result, the number of risky lifts in the second week plummeted by 84%, and workers reported that they enjoyed both the device and the competition.
The Future Of Wearables
If this is just the beginning, how can we expect wearables to shape the future?
To help answer this question, Dr. Chris Brauer, a University of London researcher who studies wearables in the workplace, lead the Human Cloud At Work (HCAW) study. The study observed how wearables are used in several industries, and found that activity monitors made a mostly positive impact on workplace culture.
HCAW reported that “devices such as brain activity sensors, motion monitors and posture coaches can significantly increase employees’ productivity while also improving their job satisfaction.”
As a part of this research, Dr. Brauer identified five potential ways wearables can impact workers:
Augmentation involves the use of wearables in order to improve worker skills and increase employee productivity.
Much worker information is invisible and untracked. When employers and employees can understand when and why they perform at their peak, they can be more effective on the job.
One participant in the study commented that they hope to use GENEActive, an activity tracker, in order to pinpoint their high-performance days. They said, “Usually, if I don’t cycle in, I find myself feeling sluggish, so it will be interesting to see if any of the data collected by the GENEActiv shows a difference between days when I do and days when I don’t cycle to and from work.”
When information is tracked, it inspires positive competition between workers. This element was featured in the Crane Worldwide Logistics case study.
Monitoring performance allows workers to see the real-world improvements that can happen with regular breaks.
As anyone who uses a fitness tracker can tell you, just counting your steps encourages you to increase your daily step count. Similarly, if worker performance is self-monitored, it will make employees deliberately improve their productivity.
Legal And Ethical Concerns
“Hey,” you might be saying. “This is all kind of creepy.”
After all, it’s one thing if your work monitors your computer to ensure you don’t spend your working hours on PornHub. It’s another issue entirely for your boss to know that you have a tendency to wake up at 2 a.m. every night for a glass of water.
Companies actually have recognized the creep factor, and try to keep a healthy distance between management and intrusive data. For example, they’ll anonymize the data and hire a third party to analyze it.
In some instances, however, “creepy” might cross the line into “legally questionable.” Since technology tends to move at about ten times the speed of the law, workplace wearables are still operating in a legal gray area.
According to recent commentary by the global law firm DLA Piper, in some jurisdictions, employers are not required to acquire employee consent for data collection when it is “reasonable for the purpose of managing the employment relationship.” However, since wearables usually track data even outside of the workplace, they recommend that employers obtain consent for the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data via wearables. Employers may also have a legal requirement to protect data collected from trackers and prevent unauthorized access.
But even tracking purely job-related data with wearables might cause legal issues. For example, if a wearable indicates that a particular employee is doing poorly at their job, it might be legally dangerous to automatically jump to the conclusion that he or she is slacking. It might indicate that the employee is suffering from a disability, says Jason Geller, a partner at law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP. In this case, the employee would be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and therefore the employer would be responsible for making a “reasonable accommodation.”
“The employer may need to ask itself, ‘Do I need to initiate a discussion with this employee about whether the productivity was related to a disability?’” says Geller.
We’re still the beginning of the workplace wearables revolution. But if they invade offices as quickly as they invaded gyms, it will be only a matter of one or two years before they become commonplace. And given the privacy concerns at hand, we'll likely see the legal implications of wearables reviewed by a court in the near future.