Wearable technology such as smartwatches, smart glasses and wearable scanners will exceed $60 billion in 2022, according to a report by ABI Research. And they’re creeping into the workplace and helping companies provide better employee experiences, according to research by Deloitte. “Wearable technologies such as smart watches, smart glasses, hearables, and exoskeletons can help company leaders navigate... Challenges by augmenting workers’ physical and perceptual capabilities, amplifying their physical strength, lucidly conveying detailed task instructions as needed, facilitating virtual interactions, and alerting for hazards. All of this has the potential to significantly boost productivity and safety,” Deloitte research authors David Schatsky and Navya Kumar wrote in their July report, “Workforce superpowers: Wearables are augmenting employees’ abilities.”
Deloitte isn't alone. Earlier this year, Clutch surveyed 500-plus full- and part-time workers to learn about technology in their workplaces. Researchers found that 16 percent of workers use wearables for their jobs. Overall, more than half of people (51 percent) say they're excited to work with new technology. Among workers whose companies haven't implemented new technology, 35 percent are hopeful that they'll have access to new tech at work soon.
Wearables in the Workplace? Who’s Doing It?
So where’s the primary use case right now for wearables in the workplace? How is it helping companies? Schatsky, managing director at Deloitte, told CMSWire he believes improving efficiency and productivity and enhancing safety are potentially the most common enterprise use cases. “Companies,” he said, “expect wearables to lower time, effort and re-work for task completion, while boosting work quality and workplace safety.” He cited the example of productivity enhancement at GE Aviation, where smart glasses ensure that mechanics need not stop work to check reference manuals, thus improving efficiency by 8 to 12 percent while reducing errors, potentially saving millions.
Meanwhile, at Audi, workers piloting the use of exoskeletons have reported 20 to 30 percent less strain on back muscles, making the workplace safer for these employees, given overexertion is the leading cause of disabling workplace injuries, Schatsky said.
Further research revealed a blog by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which weighed in on the use of exoskeletons at work. “From the standpoint of workplace health and safety, wearable exoskeleton devices may be beneficial in reducing musculoskeletal loads that are not otherwise abated by engineering process change,” CDC doctors wrote. “Lifting and handling of heavy materials and supporting heavy tools are contributors to fatigue and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) which are known to account for approximately 30 percent of lost time workplace injuries and illnesses.” The CDC cited Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, which estimated the direct costs of injuries due to overexertion involving an outside source (from lifting, pushing, pulling, turning, throwing, or catching) to be $15.1 billion in 2012, representing one quarter of the total workplace injury direct costs.
When asked which particular industries Schatsky and Deloitte researchers found wearables penetrating the workplace.
- Warehousing and retail - Where wearables can enable efficient order picking and safe lifting of heavy weights
- Manufacturing - Where wearables reduce worker fatigue and strain, also improve speed and quality of work
- Field service activities across industries - Where wearables deliver expert advice and information to the point of repair/servicing, even if remotely located
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Wearables Supports Health-Conscious Employees
Naturally, one of the most popular use cases for wearables — in the workplace or consumer world — has been the evolution of step-counters, like Fitbit. It reported $1.6 billion in revenue for Fiscal Year 2017.
Nate Masterson, CEO of Maple Holistics, finds that consumer craze for wearable health devices creeping into the workplace as a prominent use case. The primary function for wearables right now is health consciousness, Masterson said. “This increase in health consciousness can be beneficial to employers as it promotes personal responsibility for one's health,” Masterson said. “In general, prevention is often the best deterrent, and health-geared wearables can effectively help prevent illness and encourage healthier lifestyles. As a health and beauty company, we do our best to promote fitness and overall well-being for all of our employees.”
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Potential Cons: ‘Big Brother,’ Health Risks
Deloitte’s research cited a UK study that found many workers are concerned about surveillance through wearables or “Big Brother watching.” Deloitte researchers also found other workers fear workplace discrimination based on health data captured from wearables, according to another study earlier this year.
Deloitte researchers called in their report for change management programs that support the deployment of wearables in the workforce to include more than training. They must, researchers found, anticipate and address employee concerns over privacy and data usage. “Delivering a clear communication of the purpose and scope of wearable deployment early, i.e. well before the devices hit the floor, is important for assuaging employee concerns,” Schatsky told CMSWire. “Closely engaging employee representatives and influencers can prove effective in this effort.”
Establishing and disseminating formal guidelines for capture, access and usage of data from wearables is also crucial, he added, along with setting up mechanisms for clarifications and grievance redressal.
Additionally, the CDC did bring up some important health questions when it comes to wearables in the workplace and exoskeletons: “Do some devices create a transference of load between musculoskeletal regions that still puts the worker at risk? For example, a vest or hip-supported device may transfer load off the arms and shoulders, but the increase in total load transferred to the spine and lower extremities may also have long term effects. Does the added weight of some devices increase energy expenditure/metabolic workload? Do some devices affect user comfort?”
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Costs, Implementation Factors
How much time and effort would deploying wearables in an organization take? What are typical costs, and who typically would lead the charge here in an organization? Does it require IT skills with deployment, or are other business leaders stepping in with implementation?
“Implementation details can vary widely,” Schatsky said, “based on a variety of factors including the type of wearable, length of pilot phase and scale of deployment. Schatsky found an example of a workplace wellness program leveraging a fitness tracker where the pilot phase itself ran for nearly a year to observe tangible changes in health indicators. Meanwhile, he said, three to six months is reportedly a common timeframe for smart glass projects.
Device costs depend on type of wearable, its degree of sophistication and the quantities purchased, according to Schatsky. For instance, per piece price can vary from approximately $44 to $255 for fitness trackers, $1,000 to $3,000 for smart glasses and $6,500 for some exoskeletons. Software and integration costs also apply.
Deployment and Training
“Deployments often require lines of business and other leaders to work with the IT and wearable vendors for integrating the devices with existing enterprise systems and other efforts such as digitizing manuals for display over smart glasses or to be read over hearables,” Schatsky said.
Training workers to use wearables is not inordinately challenging due to the intuitive nature of these devices, he found. For instance, a worker can start working with an exo-suit immediately. “It just takes,” Schatsky said, “a few weeks to get used to.”
There are numerous smaller vendors and startups that offer the hardware and software for each type of wearable. For example, Deloitte’s partner Upskill offers a software platform to create smart glasses applications, Schatsky said. Large technology and industrial product companies such as Fujitsu, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Honeywell and Siemens also offer a range of workplace wearable solutions, including wearables-as-a-service and as end-to-end solutions that can ease enterprise adoption, he added.
Should You Take the Wearable Plunge?
What are some common signs organizations should recognize that they may be a good candidate to pursue wearables? “Wearables are applicable across a range of use cases and industries,” Schatsky said. “They can be particularly useful for organizations struggling with skill shortages or aging workers and yet finding full automation infeasible. By supporting workers and embodying skills and abilities they may lack, wearables can expand the labor pool available to employers and reduce the time required to train workers for new tasks.”
Wearables, he added, can also help organizations where a significant number of employees can benefit from hands-free, frequent and immediate access to information as they work with complex systems, interact with customers or operate remotely.