When will the wearables breakthrough happen?

The workplace is the most promising space for wearable technology, but mistrust in employers is holding it back.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2016

The prophets of tomorrow’s technology are an unreliable bunch. The glazed-eyed Californian ‘futurologists’ insisting that we’d all be living under the sea in tin foil catsuits have yet to be vindicated.

Yet more often than not, the greatest problem with predictions is the detail not the gist. It’s not the what, but the how and especially the when that we tend to get wrong.

As a what, wearables are a no brainer. They are entirely consistent with some of the main trends in technology, towards the more instant, the more convenient and the more fruitful in data.

Wearables are already a big and growing market – last year, over 78 million wearable devices were sold worldwide, according to Statistica, up 175% from the year before - but compared to the smart phone, they are still a fringe product. So when will their breakthrough moment come?

Question 1: is it just a smart phone strapped to your wrist?

The smart watch may be the leading wearable, but it will struggle as an interface with the wider world unless it does something different to a smart phone.

In the last 200 years, the only three genuinely new items people have been convinced to carry with them at all times are watches, spectacles and smart phones. The enormity of the smart phone revolution in terms of people’s behaviour is therefore hard to overestimate.

Yes a smart watch is still a watch (albeit one you have to replace every 18 months, unlike your Tag Heuer), but if its essential offering is just the same as a smart phone but on a far smaller screen – calls, messages, social networks, surfing the net etc – then it’s not going to be anything but a novelty for any but the most serious of tech heads.

Question 2: what else can it do?

The real value in wearables is access to more data, especially health-related, haptic feedback and the ‘you-see-what-I-see’ interface (think Google Glass, with someone watching your stream remotely). Other than fitness buffs and voyeurs, the people most interested in these will be employers, not consumers.

From remote, on-the-job training to monitoring employees’ stress levels, wearables have the potential to increase worker productivity and ultimately save money.

As Dr Chris Brauer said in MT’s recent Wearables at Work roundtable, this could be an alternative to job-stripping automation: ‘Man vs  machine, they say we’ve got no chance. But man plus machine vs machine, well for the next 20 to 30 years we’re going to win, if we augment ourselves fully with the tech at our disposal.’

Given that the tech is already there in many areas, why haven’t more companies invested in Google Glasses (the tech giant quietly relaunched the failed consumer product for businesses last year) or Fitbits for the office?

In part, the answer could simply be the reluctance on the part of employers to invest in a new way of working. But a deeper problem is the reluctance on the part of employees to wear the things if asked.

A recent survey of 2,000 workers by PwC found that while 65% wanted employers to take a more active role in their health and wellbeing, only 46% said they were willing to accept a free wearable if this meant their employer had access to the data recorded. A shocking 37% were worried their employer would use the information against them somehow.

Let’s hear it for Generations Y, Z

The good news, if you’re a fan of wearables, is that younger people are more willing to forgo their privacy – PwC said Generation Y was twice as likely as older workers to accept a wearable that gave their employer access to the data.

(Hardly surprising for people who’ve grown up bearing their soul every ten minutes on Facebook or Snapchat. One imagines Generation Z will be even more blasé about their privacy so long as they get a cool toy. )

The point is, though, that if you really want your employees to accept productivity-boosting wearables at work, you have to earn their trust. Would your employees trust you not to use the data in more ways than they said they were going to?

Honestly, if you could find out whether Steve from sales was actually at a client meeting for three hours last Thursday or just in the pub, would you not be tempted to look?

As with many technological revolutions, the rise of wearables will be tempered by social and cultural attitudes. When exactly they will go mainstream is, sadly, impossible to predict.  If you want the where, though, look to your HR department, not the Apple store.  


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