IoB Insiders: Wearables and companion devices in the workplace
IoB Insiders: Wearables and companion devices in the workplace

IoB Insiders: Wearables and companion devices in the workplace

IoB Insiders Rob Bamforth, analyst at research company Quocirca, considers how organizations can adapt to and prepare for the growing number of different wearables being used in the workplace.

Despite the ups and downs of any innovation, wearable mobile devices have often been touted as the next ‘big thing’ for the connected consumer. The proposition is typically ‘hands free’ or remote access to technology, something that might be useful both at home and in the workplace.

Although there are other form factors and some interest in smart clothing, a device worn on the wrist seems to be the most appealing proposition.

Over the last few years, technology has at last caught up with sci-fi and comic books, and various smartwatches have emerged. Smart, or at least digital watches, are not new and over several decades, additional features have been added to and removed as fashions change. The difference now is connectivity and the immediacy of effect (good or bad) which that provides. This will have an increasing impact in the workplace.

Daily diversion

Most wearable devices, by their very nature, are designed to be worn the whole time, and this will include time at work. A watch with a celestial calendar on the wrist or pedometer on the hip is not going to have any meaningful impact on the workplace, but smartwatches or other connected wearable devices might.

Fitness bracelets and most smartphones are companion devices, pairing with a smartphone, which then typically connects to a cloud service. In theory, this is all self-contained, but each point is a potential vulnerability to the employee’s organisation, plus it is one more thing for an individual to be distracted by when they are meant to be working. Organizations need to ensure they have policies in place to avoid problems in the workplace, without being overly draconian.

That challenge is increasing as more recent devices, such as those from Samsung and Huawei, are independent from smartphones, with their own direct cellular connectivity. This is likely to be a continuing trend and organizations already struggling to work out how to embrace Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) for smartphones and tablets will need to include wearables in their strategy.

There is also a growing challenge from image capture. At one time this was limited to smartphone cameras, now there are body-worn action cameras and the ‘not actually an accoutrement, but more an accompaniment’: follow-me drones.

While these might cause an obvious stir in a traditional office, they might creep into other working environments for a variety of reasons. These could include legitimate purposes for image capture such as personal safety or insurance, (like the growing use of dash cams in cars), but this use could easily spread with current passion to record almost every element of life and share on social media.

Read more: Who’s on first? Identification and wearables change insurance

Wearables in the workplace

Wearable devices already play a working role in many organisations – sometimes with consumer devices, more often with business-specific devices. These will range from hands-free interactive voice communications for stock pickers in logistics, and arm-worn devices in retail, to smart watches for alerting maintenance crews and fitness trackers to monitor employee health (and perhaps lower the cost of health insurance for the employer).

These devices may have to increasingly coexist alongside consumer wearables chosen by the employees themselves, so now is the time to start thinking about policies for a wearable strategy, before any problems arise. Organizations need to consider the following:

  • Distraction – It might occasionally get in the way, but banning fitness monitoring, for example, is unlikely to be successful or have a positive impact. Support employees taking positive steps towards good health, but remind them of the need to minimize interruptions.
  • Prohibition – Not many devices should need to be banned, but with so much technology available, rules should be clear. Don’t want ‘action’ workplace videos to appear on the internet? Then be explicit about banning hidden cameras, drones and make the point that mobile cameras are to be used with care.
  • Security – Make employees aware of potential risks, especially where companion devices are connected via other mobile devices provided by the organisation. Have a policy that employees sign to agree they understand they have to behave responsibly. Understand and control what is attaching to your networks and have device hygiene policies in place.
  • Personal data – Some organizations are making use of wearables for health/fitness monitoring to lower insurance costs, but this can quickly look like surveillance. Whether personal or provided devices are used to collect or share health data, organizations need to be aware of the potential privacy concerns of employees and protect employee rights. Any policy on this should involve employees from the outset.

Who knows which wearable and ancillary devices will dominate in the coming years? The market is very volatile, with plenty of innovation. Organizations are going to have to deal with many different types of devices, but the challenges are similar to existing mobile policies: secure the organization and its data; cautiously embrace the preferences of employees; and ensure technology is an enhancement, rather than a distraction, in the workplace.

Read more: New mHealth sensor developed to monitor blood-flow with wearables