Wearable Tech in the Workplace

The fledgling wearable-device trend will soon hit the consumer market full-force, but how well will wearables translate to the workplace and what HR challenges will they bring along with them?

Thursday, January 16, 2014
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CES 2014, otherwise known as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is over, but one of the mainstays at this year's gadget gorge-a-thon -- wearable tech devices -- is just about to get started.

For consumers, wearable tech is a logical next step from smartphones and tablets. What about in the workplace? How will this trend, fraught with promise and peril, fare among employers and their people? As with all things technology, much depends on how employers use and manage wearable tech, say the experts.

 "Like any new technology, we have to get through what is acceptable in the workplace first," says Michael Krupa, a partner and technology strategist in Mercer's Portland, Ore., office. "What we are seeing in the workplace, as it relates to HR, is the idea of developing applications for wearable tech in many areas, such as talent acquisition, training, etc.

"Most companies, of course, probably are not yet even thinking about it," he says. "Outside of very tech-driven employers, you are not seeing people walking around with wearable devices, other than those using them for wellness programs." the uninitiated, wearable tech comes in several flavors. Smartglasses, led by Google Glass and other brands, are the most intriguing. Designed to resemble a normal pair of eyeglasses, smartglasses enable communication in an eye blink. Wearable devices take the benefits of smartphone technology, including mobility, connectivity and applications, and introduce heightened collaboration and engagement. Every aspect of daily life is subject to change, particularly in the world at work.

Next up are "smartwatches," including models from Pebble, Martin, InPulse and Sony. Then you have wearable health monitors, products such as FitBit, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone, which collect and analyze physical data often to understand, monitor and maximize physical activity and improve wellness. There also are medical devices that monitor particular biometric indicators such as blood sugar levels and pulse rate. And finally, there are radio-frequency-identification-based chips that provide GPS location tracking data to employers.

 On the usage front, the potential seems limitless. For example, smartglasses can be used by people who need to use both hands to complete a complex task -- ranging from fixing a machine to performing delicate brain surgery. Insurance claims professionals might use smartglasses to visually capture damages and simultaneously check on the costs of replacement parts. Messengers and drivers can use smartglasses as hands-free GPS navigation devices.

For HR, employers might also use smartglass video recordings to evaluate employee performance. Managers would be able to evaluate an IT installer or assembly line worker's workflow to improve efficiency and quality. Recordings can also help employers pinpoint problem employees, including those who take excessive and unwarranted breaks during work time.

If hazardous substances, dangerous conditions or significant physical exertion is part of the job, wearable biometric sensors could help prevent employee injuries and minimize the chances of workers' compensation claims. In transportation and shipping industries, such devices -- when paired with a vibrating or sonic alert that detects lower heart rates or respiratory rates -- may also be able to help prevent drivers from falling asleep behind the wheel.

The ideas of how to use wearable tech in the workplace are seemingly limitless, as well.

It's no wonder then, that a Credit Suisse report says wearable technology eventually may have a "significant and pervasive impact on the economy." Also, research firm Gartner forecasts that Google Glass and other "smartglasses" alone will help make employees more efficient, ultimately adding more than $1 billion per year to company profits by 2017.

For their part, employees seem ready for the wearable-device option. Cornerstone OnDemand, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based provider of cloud-based talent management software solutions, in its "State of Workplace Productivity Report" released this past fall, found, among other things, 58 percent of employees would be willing to use wearable tech if it enabled them to do their jobs better. Not surprisingly, more Millennial workers (66 percent) would be willing to do this versus their older colleagues (55 percent).

 "For organizations, smart management means staying ahead of what employees want and need in order to be most productive. It's about embracing mobile and providing workers with user-centric applications that simplify -- not complicate -- how they get work done," says Adam Miller, founder and CEO of Cornerstone OnDemand.

Brian Herr, senior director of product management at Kronos, the workforce management solutions provider, says wearable tech in the workplace differs greatly from the consumer market because, unlike the latter, employers that decide to use wearable tech devices must show a tangible economic return. Herr adds that when it comes to adopting a wearable tech strategy, there must be something for employee as well as employer. For example, employees using wearable devices can be rewarded with bonuses for improved performance.

"If there is no tangible benefit for employees, it's very doubtful they will want to wear it," Herr says. "Just like with any new technology, if it increases overhead and decreases efficiency, employees will not embrace it."

Chicago-based Todd Maycunich, vice president of product innovation at TMP Worldwide, the global recruitment advertising agency, says a wearable "augmented reality" tools such as Google Glass are going to deliver some dramatic advantages.

"It's undeniable that Glass is going to change how we recruit, interview and onboard new employees," Maycunich says.

Maycunich says that, as today's recruiters adopt new technology at a voracious speed in order to maintain a competitive edge, wearables promise to impact all aspects of the recruiting process. 

For example, Maycunich says recruiters could initiate a "Google Hangout" that could serve as a collaborative interview, allowing peers to listen in, share notes and send messages to the interviewer to drive the conversation remotely. With increased interest in the candidate experience, Google Glass use could enable recruiters to pose new questions that correspond with the candidate's responses to personalize the interview for the job seeker and employer.

Maycunich says there also is potential for wearables to advance candidates through the hiring process and support onboarding, learning and development initiatives, adding that employer-specific applications could help employees assimilate quickly and instill confidence by guiding them around the office to learn the layout and keep track of the new names and faces.

"The benefit is, the quicker people acclimate, the more likely they are to be productive," he says. "Onboarding is one place where there will be some innovation around Glass. No doubt about it."

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Those are just a few of the benefits. Now come the caveats. It's a given that companies will have to overcome concerns about employee privacy and data security before rolling out wearable technology.

Josh Druckerman, an associate with White Harris PLLC, a New York-based employment law firm, often fields questions about technology risks from clients in a variety of industries. Druckerman says any time an employer collects information about employees, they need to be careful about what information is collected and how they use it, but these concerns can be especially acute with emerging recording-capable devices such as Google Glass.

He says that while Google Glass and other so-called "heads-up display" devices can be beneficial, they also can create significant legal risks for employers. For example, devices such as Google Glass allow individuals to surreptitiously record video and audio, which can create legal liability.

"Many employers have relatively strict rules and policies regarding what employees can and cannot record in the workplace," he says. "These policies are generally designed to ensure employee privacy and protect sensitive trade secret information, and Glass's recording capabilities can violate these policies."

Further, he says, anti-wiretapping or privacy laws in some states prohibit recording private conversations without the consent of all of the parties involved.

"If an employee violates these statutes in the course of their employment, the employer may be held liable for the violation," Druckerman says.

Employers with access to Glass recordings may also inadvertently gain access to information about employees that could create liability. For instance, if an employer were to use Glass for quality control, and accidentally recorded footage of employees in restrooms or changing rooms, the employees could sue the employer for creating a hostile working environment.

Similarly, if an employer terminated an employee for poor performance, and a review of recorded Glass footage reveals the employee was attempting to unionize the workforce just before termination, the employee would have a strong claim that the employer knew about the employee's protected activity, creating a risk of wrongful termination and retaliation lawsuits.

"Companies that use devices similar to Google Glass would need to tailor technology use policies carefully to the desired application," he says. "These policies would include very strict limitations on when recording functionality may be used, what the device may be used for, and when devices must be turned off or otherwise rendered inoperable.

The same holds true for biometric sensors, smartwatches, wearable GPS functionality and Bluetooth/RFID devices. These technologies can be a boon -- they could replace time cards for tracking overtime and travel time, for instance -- but employers should tread very carefully.

 "Any time an employer collects information, they must be very careful what is collected, how it is stored, and how it is used," he says, adding that biometric scanners are particularly worrisome, for example, because they might uncover a physical disability, illness or a protected physical characteristic, such as narcolepsy, asthma, heart conditions or pregnancy.

Employers generally are required under a variety of federal and state laws to create reasonable accommodations for disabilities, illnesses and other physical conditions, and are often prohibited from firing or taking other adverse employment action against such individuals based on disabilities or other protected conditions.

"Like most technology solutions," Druckerman says, "security and appropriate use policies are paramount."

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