Wearable technology set to take the workplace by storm

Like the PC, mobile phone and tablet, wearable technology is poised to change how organizations collect, access and use information. The first three technologies are long past the hype cycle – consumers and businesses alike have already embraced these technologies as a fundamental part of their everyday lives.

Wearable technologies, however, are beginning to enter the mainstream, and technology enthusiasts are buzzing about how they can be used to enhance our personal and work environments. But as with most technology, we are far from understanding how these connected devices will be used. As we look at wearables, we have an opportunity to embrace the unknown.

What is wearable technology?

Think of wearable technologies in several broad categories:

  • Smart devices like Google Glass and watches like the InPulse Smart Notification Watch allow people to view information in a new way, and on the go.
  • Health monitors such as the FitBit, FuelBand and Jawbone collect and analyze physical data often to understand, monitor and maximize physical activity and improve wellness.
  • Medical devices that continually monitor particular biometric indicators such as blood sugar levels, pulse to adjust treatment for various illnesses and health deficiencies like diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, etc.
  • Tethered devices that are an extension of a smartphone, such as a Bluetooth biometric sensor acting as a heart monitor.


Vast market potential

As a recent report from Credit Suisse asserts, wearable technology is at an inflection point and may have a “significant and pervasive impact on the economy.” The report also points out that wearables are “leveraging advances in voice technology, biometrics, communications, cloud storage, and power consumption” and “smartwatches and other wearable devices could be a $50 billion market by 2017.”

Wearable technology in action

For the most part, wearable technology is still in the trial or concept phase. But we can already see some very real examples of how this wearable technology could transform the work environment. The following examples illustrate the business impact wearable technology can have in the next decade.

  • As the floor manager for Widget Manufacturing, John pays close attention to the volume of widgets produced, the number that need re-work after Quality Control and the amount of waste or ‘scrap’ produced. By introducing wearable technology, John now has location-based information tying employees to specific production, even when the employees switch from task to task. When a machine malfunction interrupts the output on one line, John is able to quickly reassign three workers to another nearby line that could use their particular skill set until the machine is fixed. The employees simply walk from one line to another and don’t have to “clock” in at the terminal which isn’t nearby. And because he knows the location and skill set of every worker on the line, any bottlenecks or issues with product quality can quickly be correlated to the specific problem area in real time so John can quickly take steps to remedy the situation.
  • Microsoft retail store

  • Many retailers already use cameras to detect the volume and flow of customer traffic. Imagine if you could visualize that information alongside the location of retail employees in the store. The store manager could instantly re-assign underutilized staff to areas with a high volume to increase customer satisfaction. Let’s also take a look at a specific part of the store – the shoe department. The store manager can understand the amount of time employees spend interacting with customers versus in the backroom looking for sizes and how that impacts overall sales volume. Taking that a few steps further, imagine the store associate has a QR code or employee number on their name tag. The customer is invited to fill out a simple customer satisfaction survey when they are waiting in line that gives them a certain percentage off that particular transaction. The retailer can now correlate workforce location directly to sales and customer satisfaction.
  • A number of hospitals already give nurses tablets while other facilities use mobile apps that connect nurses and physicians directly to electronic medical records (EMR). By introducing wearable technologies capable of tracking a particular caregiver’s location, hospital administrators could improve patient outcomes and better understand and manage employee resources. For example, the pain management team plays a crucial role in post-op care, especially since the surgeons are likely occupied in the operating room the morning after a procedure. Imagine if you could track the movement of these specialists as it relates to pages from nurses and direct those specialists to the most urgent cases and make the most of their location proximity – which can measurably improve quality of care and how a patient feels about their overall experience.

Looking ahead

Of course, there is still a lot of conjecture on how this will play out. A few challenges must be tackled. First, privacy experts will be adamant that physical tracking and data collection should be closely monitored and regulated. Second, a recent article in the MIT Technology Review explores the idea that wearable technologies might prove distracting. As iPhone users know well, heavy use of data-intensive apps will quickly drain the battery – this will likely be a consideration for wearable technology in the near future as well. Last, like clothing or shoes, wearable technology will have to satisfy fashionable sensibilities. On that last point, we eagerly await information about Apple’s secretive iWatch as Apple is unmatched when it comes to institutionalizing technology as a status symbol.

But in the meantime, we are pushing ahead with wearable technology projects. This technology is only going to get better and more prevalent over the years. We are convinced that it can be used to create competitive advantage, so everyone should think about how it can help their organization.

Bill Bartow is vice president, global product management at Kronos a workforce management software company.

Retail photo courtesy of Flickr user blakespot