Wearables in the Workplace: Potential and Pitfalls

It’s becoming one of the hot new trends in corporate technology: wearables in the workplace. More employees are using devices such as smart watches, health monitors and augmented reality glasses. As a result, IT and business executives have to consider the benefits as well as the challenges of allowing employees to use these technologies at work.

The trend has similarities to the bring-your-own-device movement that sprang from the growing popularity of smartphones and tablets. As they did with BYOD, companies that allow employees to “bring your own wearable” (BYOW) or “wear your own device” (WYOD) need to consider the potential governance issues.

The use of wearables is clearly on the rise. A report released in April 2015 by IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology shows that 81 percent of the 2,400 U.S.-based CIOs surveyed expect wearable computing devices such as watches and glasses to become common tools in the workplace.

CIOs say these products could potentially be used to record meetings, scan documents and provide navigation, among other applications, according to the report. The study notes that the main considerations for IT executives evaluating wearables include security risks and whether the organization is prepared to handle these risks.

On the plus side, industry experts say wearables have their place for a variety of business applications.

“Very interesting niche use cases are being identified for wearables among workers who are constantly mobile,” says Richard Absalom, principal analyst, enterprise mobility at research firm Ovum. As examples, he mentions “the construction, manufacturing, engineering and health care markets, where people need to access and view information at the same time [they are] using both hands.”

Wearables can help make workers more efficient in environments where seconds and minutes matter. With these devices, “People don’t need to stop what they are doing to check a screen,” Absalom points out.

Launching a Wellness Program

The devices also can get employees thinking more about their fitness. In 2013, Indiana University Health (IU Health), a not-for-profit academic health system, launched a pilot as part of a corporate wellness program in which it distributed Fitbit wristband and clip-on health and fitness monitoring products to a variety of employees.

IU Health wanted to help improve the health and fitness of its workforce, and saw the wearable devices as a good way to get employees thinking about and tracking their physical activity throughout the day, says Marci Cooper, manager of employee wellness.

“We’re challenging employees to move more often through the use of this wearable technology,” she explains. “We are committed to having a culture of wellness in the workplace and are working to create a healthy environment.”

The pilot was a huge success, Cooper says, and IU Health followed with a full program in the spring of 2014. In that program, 3,000 devices were sold to employees within three hours. The program now includes more than 4,000 of the company’s 28,900 employees across the state of Indiana.

IU Health subsidizes a portion of the cost of the devices so employees don’t have to pay the full price, she says. Workers can choose from any of the wearable models that Fitbit provides.

As a result of the wellness program, employees—including administrators, health care professionals, technicians and senior executives—are making more effort to move around during their workday.

“People are having walking meetings and taking more stairs,” Cooper says. “They’re more eager to walk over to the printer to pick something up.” Surveys by the organization show that 96 percent of the employees involved say they are moving around more since the program launched.