Laptops, smartphones and tablets; these have become indispensable tools in the workplace. Whether we’re sitting at our desks, attending meetings or on-the-go, our devices go where we go. But there’s a new wave in workplace tech coming at us, and it promises to have an impact on all aspects of our working day. It’s the “wearable” revolution.
By now, if you have not heard of the term “wearable tech,” there’s a good chance you’ve been living under a rather large rock. Popularized by activity-tracking accessories like the FitBit and Nike’s FuelBand, the wearables category is thought to be worth $2 billion U.S. by some estimates. Further studies suggest that it will grow by 64% here in Canada over the next 5 years.
But there’s a lot more to wearables than fitness trackers.
Tom Emrich, founder at WeAreWearables.com, points out that the term is currently being used to describe everything from smart wrist bands to smart watches to intelligent clothing and even head-mounted gadgets.
When it comes to the workplace, he sees two different types of wearables becoming commonplace, for different reasons.
Informative devices like smartwatches, e.g. the Pebble and Samsung Gear, are going to increase our productivity by reducing our level of distraction. That sounds counter-intuitive until you hear Emrich explain it:
“Smartwatches shave off the seconds… it’s a glance-able device,” he says. Currently, when you receive a notification on your smartphone, “like Pavlov’s dog you have to answer it. You find yourself heading down the rabbit hole of checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and back to email… that second it should have taken to see what’s going on becomes minutes. Over the course of a day that can add up.”
With a smartwatch, these notifications can be checked without ever pulling out your phone, a step that minimizes the time you spend on unrelated tasks.
The other category is biometric sensors. Some are as simple as the fitness trackers mentioned above, but a new breed of devices are on their way that can offer a much deeper look into how our bodies are behaving.
Canadian startup OMsignal, is pioneering in this space with the introduction of their OMsignal shirt. Worn as a base layer, in direct contact with your skin, the shirt is capable of tracking heart rate, breathing rate, breathing depth, activity intensity, steps walked, calories burned and heart rate variability. All of this data is collected by a small module attached to the shirt, which then sends it wirelessly to your smartphone. The company’s companion app lets you see your data displayed as a dashboard.
While you’d be right in thinking that athletes stand to gain an enormous amount of benefit from the OMsignal shirt, it’s the shirt’s use as monitoring device for workplace health and stress that intrigues Dr. Jesse Slade Shantz, OMSignal’s Chief Medical Officer. He notes that many companies already offer employees incentives to stay healthy, but lack the means to track how well people are keeping that commitment.
“Companies are starting to use wearables as a way to measure [the activity] and incenting their employees to be healthier,” Shantz says. Similarly, these devices can help managers understand what causes stress and how they can alleviate it. Shantz points out that the OMsignal shirt can “help people realize when they’re stressed and what’s causing that stress.” Using the shirt’s built-in sensors, OMsignal can tell you when your breathing has become shallow – a strong indicator of stress. Down the road, it may even be possible to notify an employee in real-time when the data suggests that they’re stressed, prompting them to take a break, or just change their current activity.
Emrich is also bullish on these kinds of wearables at work. “Biometrics can help us live a better and healthier lifestyle,” he says.
But what about privacy?
Shantz acknowledges it’s a rapidly changing landscape and that “policies are nebulous right now around what’s going to be protected and what’s not going to be protected.” His opinion is that our biometric data should be ours to share as we see fit. “The data is the user’s […] they only share what they want to share.”
There’s also a big difference between voluntarily agreeing to have your data collected by your employer for the sake of a discount on health insurance or to better manage your workplace stress. It’s another issue when your colleague comes into the office wearing Google Glass. Google’s head-mounted device which can shoot video and still images, respond to voice commands and offers real-time information via its built-in heads-up-display (HUD) isn’t even commercially available yet. But that hasn’t stopped huge swaths of the internet from dubbing those who sport the wearable as “Glassholes.”
Attitudes likes these, combined with a general lack of understanding of how wearables benefit business are the two most likely explanations for why wearables haven’t made a bigger splash in the workplace so far. When Tech Pro Research surveyed U.S. businesses in April of this year, they discovered that although interest and awareness of wearables was high—with 92% citing familiarity with the tech, fewer than 15% of these companies had implemented any kind of wearable program.
Some companies will be slow in allowing their employees to bring this kind of device into the workplace. In fact, of the half-dozen large Canadian companies I reached out to for comment on this article, none were willing to go on record with their policies regarding the use of wearables at work. It’s a good bet that they simply don’t have any policies yet and would prefer not to acknowledge it.
Not all companies share this conservative approach. Megan Woerlein, Corporate Recruiter for Toronto technology firm Architech, says her company places “no restrictions whatsoever” on their employees’ use of new technology.
For Woerlein and Architech, wearables are an exciting development. “They’re very useful in the workplace and eventually they’ll improve productivity,” she says. But even if Architech didn’t see any direct benefit to wearables, they would be reluctant to police their use. Woerlein feels strongly that, “if you try and mandate the type of wearable technology they bring in with them, I don’t think that’s creating a good culture of trust.”
Ultimately, Woerlein believes that wearables are simply the next stage in the ongoing evolution of technology within the work world. She correctly points out that “people have been bringing in their tablets for a long time now so it was only a matter of time before they started bringing in their wearables as well.”
Love ‘em or loathe them, as wearables continue to gain in popularity and in the kinds and amount of data they’re able to track, the question isn’t “if” your working environment will include them, but “when.”
Simon Cohen is one of Canada’s most experienced Consumer Tech voices. He created Sync.ca, an award-winning Canadian technology blog which had an audience of over 500,000 monthly visitors. He has appeared as a guest numerous times on national TV and radio programmes, including Canada AM, Sync Up (a weekly segment on CTV News Channel) and App Central. He is currently an independent writer and editor contributing to various publications, but you can always find his thoughts and musings on his blog at excitable.ca.