Working wearables: What's in it for the employees?

Could tech make your working life better if you agree to track it?
Are work wearables worth it?

The office of the future will eventually include wearable tech as standard, just like smartphones are everywhere at work now. Aside from boosting productivity and profits for businesses, though, what's the draw for the employees being asked to share their work and even health data with their bosses? Is the exchange of privacy for perks or better working conditions worth it?

Research company Tractica expects wearables to start popping up in office environments and industrial settings in a big way, predicting that more than 75 million devices will be deployed in work settings by 2020. That's no surprise considering the potential to benefit a variety of different disciplines such as healthcare, retail, medicine, aviation, engineering, manufacturing, and the everyday office.

"Expect growth to include devices that are part of a 'bring your own wearable' or BYOW trend [yes, really], as well as devices provided by employers as part of 'corporate wellness programs'," said Tractica's research director, Aditya Kaul. "Smartwatches will be the largest category of workplace wearables, followed by fitness trackers and internet-connected smart glasses. Smart clothing is also on the horizon."

Essential reading: We read your wearables terms and conditions

Kaul sees the BYOW trend changing with the broader growth of smartwatches, particularly the Apple Watch, over other types of wearables as they replace demand for fitness trackers.

Ready for take-off

But it's not just smartwatches and fitness bands that will become commonplace at work. VR headsets such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, or even Avegant's Glyph personal theatre headphones may eradicate the need for desktop monitors in offices. The list is endless.

No matter what the form factor is, the key for the application of wearables in our work lives will be not just through the measurement of productivity and performance but also wellbeing and happiness.

The Human Cloud At Work (HCAW) study by Goldsmiths, University of London, found that wearable tech could boost both employee productivity by 8.5% and job satisfaction by 3.5%.

Goldsmiths also estimates that each employee could create upwards of 30GB of data per week from an average of three wearable devices. The university believes that future employers will be using this mass of raw data, generated by their employees, to understand how human behaviours and environmental properties impact, amongst other profit-boosting metrics, job satisfaction.

Employees could benefit from the data, using it to demand changes in their work environments and ask for their hours to better fit their lives, maximising their productivity and health.

"Wearable tech will offer the critical missing piece of the big data puzzle that is data about human capital," said Goldsmith's Dr Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies, who led the HCAW study.

"We understand the importance of the concept of 'sport science' in optimising athletic performance through technology and analytics.

"Wearable technologies will provide a rejuvenated form of 'management science', optimising workplace productivities and performance through everyday integration of these devices and sensors into the workplace."

Brauer also predicts that employees' biometric data, captured by wearable devices, will give bosses valuable insights as to how working environments could change for better wellbeing.

"The initial drivers for wearable integration in the workplace will be health and wellbeing," he added. "Organisations are already doing things like creating wellbeing programs that track and reward employees for exercising and pursuing healthier lifestyles and diets."

There could also be financial and promotional boosts for those displaying productivity and performance improvements through their wearables' personal data.

One organisation setting an example with a serious wearable tech culture is workforce management firm Kronos, which offers its employees rewards through the use of wearables, including lower insurance premiums for staff.

The company implemented a scheme where workers could choose to upload recent activity from their devices to a personal profile on the "organisation's wellness portal" to accumulate the points required for rewards.

Neil Pickering, director at Kronos UK, said the policy resulted in greater employee engagement in the health and wellbeing program: "By encouraging and incentivising employees to exercise more to earn points, it enables them to keep healthy on their terms and gain rewards in the process.

"Since we allowed employees to use wearable devices, we have had greater engagement from staff, and employees are now more conscious about their health."

Pro or con?

Employees adopting wearable tech at work could be faced with some tough decisions, though. On one hand work-related wearables can potentially be very empowering, with the data gathered giving the 'little guy' the authority to query an employer's demands.

The hard facts in the data could be used to ask for a later start time or more flexible hours for example, demonstrating how it would have a positive productivity bounce through their wearable data.

On the other hand, it could work against them. Management could use the data to chart the relative performance of its employees via 'executive dashboards'.

Think of how a football manager gains insight into the performance of individual members of his team through detailed and personalised analytics from sensors on their body in training.

And that's without the obvious downside of arming your employer with your habits and data when you're not at work. For many, offering their company and its chosen insurance partner a window into their sleep, heart and location data is just too much of a compromise.

If your employer is looking into wearable tech schemes, it's worth finding out if it's opt-in or (unlikely) mandatory, what data will be captured, who will have access to that data and what benefits, perks or insights you'll receive in return. Because wearable data can be powerful not just for businesses but workers too.

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