Are We Ready for Wearable Technology in the Workplace?

Most people I know haven’t explored wearable technology, such as the new Apple Watch, yet, but a widespread adoption of this technology may be coming. If it is, what could it mean to the workplace?

An article in the Atlanta Tribune by Thomas Cox explores this issue. Could the same technology that allows you to easily track your fitness levels, listen to your iTunes collection, all the while receiving phone calls, also cause challenges in the workplace? In the push to use “wearables” to improve quality and accuracy of work output, will employee privacy be compromised? “…Can an employer give an employee an activity tracker as part of a wellness program and demand access to the data? A related concern by management is: Can the use of this new technology by employees be controlled so that company trade secrets and other confidential information is not lost or misused?” Cox writes, noting the ability of wearable technology, such as Google Glass and Apple Watch, to take and send photos and videos without anyone noticing.

The way I would look at it is if the company gives the employee the technology—if the company gives you a Fitbit tracker specifically as part of your participation in a corporate program—I wouldn’t expect total privacy. I would expect whatever terms I agreed to before accepting the tracker and agreeing to participate in the program. In other words, as long as I was warned that the company would have access to the information tracked by the Fitbit, and could keep it on file as part of my employee record, I would be OK with it. I simply would choose not to participate if it bothered me.

Fitness tracking devices that are part of wellness programs are relatively simple—you’re being given the device specifically for the program you agreed to participate in. But what about the day (if it ever comes) when companies give high-level, or “important,” employees a company-purchased Apple Watch? The employee would be given the watch for the purpose of work-related communications, but it would be an easy slip for the employee to take a personal picture or compose and transmit a personal communication on the device. The Apple Watch is designed to integrate with the employee’s other Apple devices. For example, the company Apple Watch would integrate with the employee’s home Mac, iPad, and iPhone. It would be hard to remember to keep all personally sensitive material off of the Watch.

The trainer’s job in guiding a company and employees about the use of wearable technology is first to warn the decision-makers about the possible complications that could arise when giving such devices to employees. Then, once the decision has been made to give the devices to employees, the trainer would need to teach employees about the importance of keeping personal information off the device, since it’s a company-owned device—even if it integrates with employees’ personally owned devices. There also would have to strict reminders that taking photos of sensitive materials or products in the development stage is forbidden, and would be punished with immediate termination.

An equally important wearable technology challenge is avoiding distraction and productivity-sapping information side trips. An “information side trip” is when you visit Google to look up something related to your work, and then end up exploring pages that came up in the search but have nothing to do with what you were looking for. Or it’s when you pull up Internet Explorer, and are led astray by the MSN landing page’s news headlines. Greater ability to get online also can mean greater ability to be inundated by information that is entertaining, but won’t help you get your work done faster. The flip side of this challenge is that sometimes being led astray can fuel new and innovative ideas.

How can you train employees to handle the greater access to information and potential distraction/new idea generation? Rather than take a hard line, telling employees that they are strictly to use the devices for work purposes only, you could direct them to use the devices in any way that helps them get their work done better and faster, keeping in mind all the while that anything personal that is transmitted or uploaded to the device will be subject to company review. It’s a precarious balance, but a potential communications and innovation booster.

I would take the opposite approach from most companies to technology provision. It seems like most companies give technology, whether it be an iPad or the Apple Watch, to relatively high-level employees. Many of these employees are further removed from the hands-on work than those working under them, who are not given the technology. What if, as an experiment, you gave the technology instead to low- and mid-level employees? A customer-facing employee could easily use an Apple Watch or an iPad to provide faster service to customers, and even an entry- or mid-level employee responsible for carrying out company plans for new products or services could benefit greatly. They would be able to connect to information and people faster on the fly, allowing them to get their work done more efficiently and accurately—and maybe without interrupting co-workers and managers as often for help.

Wearable technology is a growth area in the world of devices, and potentially can help your company—if you know how to set the right tone with employees so they know the devices are efficiency and innovation driven, rather than a new place to store puppy and vacation pictures.

Is wearable technology right for your company’s employees? What potential gains and challenges would you face in rolling it out?

Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.