HR and the Future: Wearables in the Workplace

The HR community has always struggled to keep up with the times. While our peers in marketing, finance and legal departments elegantly navigate the changing tides and seamlessly adopt the latest developments, the same HR trends stick around for a relatively long time and we still keep falling behind. Technology, people analytics and diversity have been hot topics for close to half a decade, and look at how far we have come: organizations that have successfully integrated these HR trends are few and far between.

In the meantime, while the HR community has just begun to wrap their heads around HR technology, the world has thrown yet another concept at us — wearables. For the uninitiated, wearables are smart electronic devices (electronic devices with microcontrollers) that can be worn on the body as an implant or accessory. The designs often incorporate practical functions and features. For those familiar with wearables, you probably already know that the world first started talking about them in 2011. Whoa! Six years have gone by and we’ve yet to figure how to leverage this technology effectively. Whatever happened to staying ahead in the game?

wireless-technologies-for-wearables

Why wearables?

Wearables are quickly infiltrating life as we know it. It began with fitness trackers, and then the market was flooded with smart watches. In some cases, wearable technology even outperforms hand-held devices entirely, and this is just the beginning. With the rising need to be continually connected, wearables are showing up in the workplace in great numbers. A PwC report, The Wearable Life: Connected Living in a Wearable World, states: “By 2020, more than 75 million wearables will permeate the workplace, according to research firm Tractica. And Gartner research estimates that by 2018, 2 million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment.”

This is our chance to get ahead. Wearables aren’t mainstream just yet. As Mike Pegler, a PwC partner, states, they won’t be considered mainstream until they pass the “turnaround test”. This means that when someone forgets the device at home, they will return to retrieve it. “When they pass, it means the device has risen to a point of providing sufficient value that you’re willing to turn the car around. When it hasn’t passed that test it’s a novelty.”

What do we do with wearables?

The possibilities are endless. The first option is to begin where wearables began: fitness. Reward-based programs that encourage employees to make healthy decisions benefit everyone involved. Wearables fit seamlessly into our wellness practices. Outside of the obvious benefits to the employee, this can help the employer lower health-care spending and help health-care providers improve the general health of their policyholders.

The benefit of having a device that provides seamless, convenient, portable, and almost hands-free access to electronics is that they serve as great productivity trackers. With information on how and where they spend their time, employees can push productivity to new levels.

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In the field of learning, bite-sized on-the-go sessions are the new craze, and wearables are the perfect medium of delivery. All of this is just the beginning of what wearables can offer, and ‘bring your own device’ will soon become ‘wear your own device.’

The barriers that hold us back …

The two biggest barriers holding back the advance of wearables today are privacy and cost — both important, both restrictive. While the cost barrier is being chipped away on a daily basis, concerns around privacy are here to stay. These devices can detect location, temperature, activity levels and even mood data. Just how much is an employee comfortable sharing with an employer? 82% of respondents to a survey said that they were worried about privacy. Legal restrictions are just one side of the story, getting creepy is another.

… and why they may be a good thing

Given the amount of employee data that wearables give employers access to, it is immensely important to step back and analyze what data you need and why. There are both legal and moral issue at play. As people experts, it is our responsibility to help draw the line.

Also, in a world that is constantly connected, the need to switch off and disconnect looms large. Wearables stop us from doing just that. Employees need to be able to draw a boundary between their work and their lives. Basecamp did it with #WorkCanWait. How do we intend to incorporate these factors into the technology?

These questions need to be answered before we plunge headlong into the wearables game. Maybe it’s a good thing that we are lagging a little in the race: when we do move ahead, we’ll do it in a way that is beneficial for all parties involved and not at the cost of any. Till then, let’s ensure HR doesn’t get too creepy.

This article has been written by Ankita Poddar, she is one of the emerging young HR leaders in India and originally published in WISP blog.

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