Could Wearables in the Workplace Redefine our Jobs?
Although it came from modest beginnings, wearable technology at work is something we are beginning to take for granted. Some offer practical benefits to businesses and workers— while others provide motivation for colleagues to socialise beyond the office. As seen in this blog, the benefits of wearable tech seem obvious when outlined: they can improve safety, gather data to improve efficiency, and enhance comfort and productivity. But how did the trend start, and could it be heading somewhere more sinister?
How workplace wearables have evolved
Wearables have been on the market for longer than you may have assumed; it’s been argued that the first smartwatch came out in the nineties (though opinion is split on which company is responsible), and the first bluetooth headset emerged later that decade. By the 21st century, wearables came to serve more of a functional purpose within companies. Tesco began providing armbands to warehouse employees in Ireland in 2013, tracking the stock being distributed and “freeing time they would otherwise spend marking clipboards.”
The introduction of the FitBit in 2009, and the company’s constant evolution and refinement of its product, have led it to be hailed for “lead[ing] the wearables charge.” Indeed, it’s at the front of the pack when it comes to sales, occupying 35% of the overall market share in wearables, and it’s easy to see why. The devices are being used to bring offices together in exercise challenges, with FitBit even starting its own wellness division to assist companies in doing this. The wearable tech marketplace on the whole has even been given a predicted value of $71.23 billion by the start of the next decade.
A chair you can wear, and other devices
Wearables also offer much more practical solutions to common problems in any kind of workplace. To mark their 20th year in the skies, easyJet introduced wearables into their uniforms for their cabin crew and runway staff; these included embroidered LED displays for hands-free operation, and built-in cameras.
Meanwhile, those who work in factories and warehouses may soon have their health and safety needs met by wearing their chairs in their work trousers; hardware chain Lowe’s have already trialled “assistive robotic exosuits” for their employees, which help staff lift heavy, bulky items and improve posture.
Similarly, a company in Switzerland have designed what they call a “wearable ergonomic mechatronic device” or, in less technical terms, a chairless chair. The adjustable device allows additional support for any workers who need to bend or crouch at regular intervals during their job, mechanically alleviating physical strain for these workers.
The dark side of workplace wearables
Compared with tech like the FitBit, these devices fulfill a much more useful function, by giving the proper bodily support to physically demanding jobs. Indeed, it has been pointed out that more data-driven work wearables can be used for more nefarious ends. Specifically, much has been made of the privacy of the data collected by these devices. In 2014, a court in Canada was the first to use FitBit data for legal purposes, with the Guardian noting then that this information “could be subpoenaed by courts as evidence” in future cases.
Indeed, Wareable magazine has pointed out that the privacy policies of many of the major health wristband companies does indeed include the sale of your (anonymised) information to third parties.
There are also concerns about the effect that this constant monitoring can have on the people wearing the wearables. The Telegraph noted last year that 40% of people responding to a survey on the subject believed that the data would “actively be used against them” by their employer.
With FitBits and similar devices tracking your health around the clock—including after you’ve clocked off—the idea that your boss might already know how you slept before they see the bags under your eyes could give some pause for thought. Likewise, when these companies tout the techno-utopian idea of making “a more ‘augmented human being’” with their products, the potential for corporate abuse of this data becomes clear.
As the director of Consumer Watchdog, John M. Simpson, recently put it to the Wall Street Journal, “Employers should not be analyzing their employees’ personal health information and certainly should not be required to do so.” While the idea of tech-augmented group health schemes at work can only be a good thing, this arguably should not be the way we let wearables into the workplace.