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Should you give your team wearable technology?

In Digital, Teams, Time - 3 years ago - 5 min

Should you give your team wearable technology?

From smartwatches to augmented reality glasses – businesses are experimenting with new tools designed to improve productivity and drive better customer service. Should you be looking at how the new technologies might benefit your business?

If industry projections are to be believed, wearable technology is set to play an ever-increasing role in all our lives over the next few years. Consumers are embracing activity trackers and smartwatches, and businesses are deploying a range of devices to improve customer service and boost productivity. According to Gartner, wearable device sales will grow by 18.4% in 2016 and smartwatch adoption will have 48% growth by 2017.

As things stand, the penetration of smart watches – very much the poster children of the wearables revolution – is small when compared to the ubiquity of the smartphone. But as consumer awareness grows, it’s not inconceivable that the app-enabled timepiece will become as much a part of daily life as the iPhone, iPad or Android devices.

Wearables aren’t just for the consumer market though. Businesses are putting them to use to help improve staff performance and customer experience. For instance, on the customer-service side, Virgin Atlantic trialled Google Glass to feed information to staff, making them better equipped to deal with inquiries from travellers. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, retailers such as Tesco and Amazon are deploying wearable tags and wristbands to track staff movement and improve productivity in their warehouses.

Beecham Research suggests strong growth in wearable technology across all industry sectors, commercial and industrial. Market analyst Matthew Duke-Woolley says: “The enterprise market for augmented reality and wearable technology is at a tipping point, moving from trials and test-bed projects to real commercial deployments. If this speed of transition accelerates as companies quickly recognise the benefits and return on investment, we believe the market can reach just under $800 million by 2020.”

But do such initiatives have any relevance for smaller businesses? Will wearable technology have the same impact on productivity and customer service as the arrival of e-commerce in the 1990s and the smartphone/tablet-driven mobile revolution? Will an investment in wearables benefit your business?

The New Reality

The truth is we are still in an era of experimentation, as companies search for a killer app or piece of hardware. But what we are seeing is real interest in the potential of wearable tech to solve specific problems.

Virgin Atlantic may have shown how Google Glass can work in a customer service role, but augmented reality eyepieces are also seen as potentially game-changing tools for companies running teams of field engineers. By using a device such a Google Glass, engineers can work with their hands while accessing the information from virtual manuals or receiving onscreen instructions.

However, Ian Hughes, Internet of things analyst at research firm 451, says virtual screens are useful in static workplaces, as well as out in the field. He cites the example of Metavision, a virtual reality headset that allows workers in sectors such as healthcare to access digital information as they walk around the building. Staff can read onscreen information whenever they need to and employers can reduce spend on providing desk space and physical monitors. “They can see a Skype video call pinned to the wall, or float in front them while walking,” says Ian.

The Cost Hurdle

The biggest barrier for small firms is cost. In addition to the hardware, there’s often the need for tailored software and a complex back-office IT implementation. The same is true of warehouse management systems, where tracking armbands are used to collect data on location and automate workflow.

But some wearable technologies can be deployed relatively simply – and cheaply.

Alarm systems designed to keep workers safe are a case in point. Ian cites the example of censor-equipped safety helmets. “Hardhats can be fitted with sensors, which send a signal when they suffer an impact. It means the site foreman and central office know about an accident as soon as it happens. It also helps firms collect and analyse data on incidents to understand where the patterns occur and how safety processes can be improved,” Ian says.

This is not an innovation that feeds directly through the bottom line in terms of an immediate increase in productivity. But in the longer term it will help companies cut down on accidents, with a consequent reduction in associated sickness and compensation costs.

Social Acceptance

Arguably, a bigger barrier to uptake is social acceptance. Or, to put it another way, businesses have to consider the reaction of staff to wearable technology initiatives. How will they take to being tracked as they work? Will they warm to the unfamiliar experience of wearing a virtual reality headset or a tracking device?

There is some good news here. In 2014, Goldsmiths University deployed three types of device that monitored posture, motion data and brainwave activity across a sample workforce of 80 people. By using these devices to monitor staff, the college recorded an increase in productivity of 8.5% and a 3% rise in job satisfaction.

Building apps to support business needs

But the first step for many businesses may be much simpler. In a business world that thrives on connectivity, the humble smartwatch is potentially a useful productivity tool. While there are opportunities for small, fast-growing businesses to take advantage of wearable technology, they can also find opportunities supporting the market, says Ian.

There will be an industry for applications built on top of wearable devices.

“A lot of devices are publishing their data, which means you can build a business to take that data and create another service. With Fitbit, you don’t have to use its applications; the data is available for other services in the cloud. There will be an industry for applications built on top of wearable devices,” he says.

Some companies are already creating software for existing wearable devices. Freelance work sourcing platform has designed an app to enable project managers to talk directly to freelancers via their smartwatches. As Joe Griston, director of people and talent, explains, a freelancer working on a design project can receive feedback in real time via the app. “I might say – I love what you’re doing on slide 15 but can you make the image slightly bigger and the text slightly smaller,” says Joe.

Using technology to solve a genuine problem

Incorporating wearable technology does carry a degree of risk. Encouraging staff to use smartwatches, along with their phones, may create security issues. Equally, an employer monitoring staff activity or health must comply with data privacy rules.

But as wearable technology becomes embedded in our working lives, it will provide employers with new tools to serve customers more effectively and improve operational efficiency. The challenge is to find cost-effective technologies that solve a genuine problem.

Want to know more about the effect of wearable technology in the workplace? Find out why wearables won’t make us smarter, faster or more productive. If you’re concerned about how wearables impact on productivity, find out about the hidden cost of connectivity.

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