Should You Ban Wearables at Work?

Wearable technology may help businesses cut costs and improve productivity, but it also raises concerns about business data security and employee privacy. Which side of the debate are you on?
November 19, 2014

Wearable technology is increasingly popular these days. In fact, one in five of your employees probably already owns some form of wearable technology, and that number is expected to double in the next few years.

The question employers have to ask is, What are we going to do about this? Embrace wearable technology as a potential boon to productivity, worker health and cutting costs? Ban wearables because they're a threat to privacy and security? Or simply ignore the situation and do nothing at all?

Opinions as to the best route vary, although no one seems to recommend inaction. “There should be some type of guidance within the organization,” says Dorothy Miraglia, executive vice president of Engage PEO, which provides legal counsel, HR consulting and benefits to small and mid-sized business owners. “Having a policy about wearable technology is really important.”

Many businesses already control or ban outright any sort of device that can record pictures or sound in the workplace, Miraglia points out. When it comes to wearable technology, however, some business owners say it shows so much promise and will be so widely adopted that bans or stringent controls should themselves be avoided.

“We’ve all seen efforts by policy mandate to restrict people’s use of technology," says Keith McMillen, inventor and founder of BeBop Sensors, which makes sensor-laden smart fabrics used in the manufacture of some wearables. "It’s really hard to control. And it’s best not to.”

The Rise of the Machine

While business owners may still need to take their first steps in addressing this issue, wearables are already on the scene. A study by global consulting company PwC Strategy& found that 20 percent of U.S. consumers already own wearables, with products ranging from wrist-borne health and fitness trackers to Google Glass.

To offer a sense of the future of wearables, Matthew Egol, chief strategy officer of digital services for PwC, compares their prevalence to that of tablets and notes that the rate of tablet adoption was quite similar to that of wearables at this point in their introduction. “In the two years following [their introduction], it doubled to 40 percent,” Egol says of tablet penetration. “The question is whether wearables will take the same path.”

While its popularity among the general population has yet to be seen, some applications are popping up that could make wearable technology a must-have for the well-dressed business. Many promising uses relate to employee health and wellness. Measuring activity levels, heart rates and other health metrics could provide employees with health-related feedback, improve overall employee health, reduce health-care costs and boost productivity.

Some company health plans are already pursuing this avenue, Egol says. The PwC Strategy& study found 70 percent of consumers would don employer-provided health-tracking wearables in exchange for lower insurance premiums. “The wearable is a natural fit there,” Egol says.

Productivity could also get a boost. Egol notes that industries such as insurance, construction and manufacturing are looking into equipping employees with wearables. He sees uses for insurance advisors to unobtrusively consult quotes during a client interface, or construction workers checking blueprints on a building site. “You don’t have to walk around holding a tablet,” Egol says. “Your hands are free.”

McMillen envisions many future benefits from wearable smart fabrics, such as clothing that tells a desk-bound employee when to take a break and get up and walk around for a few minutes. His company is working on creating gloves for sport weightlifters that let lifters know if they're gripping the weights properly. Similar gloves could reduce injuries in warehouses, loading docks and other workplaces.

The Downside of Wearables

Balancing these potential benefits are the potential risks. Any device that records sound, video or data could be a threat to employees’ privacy and businesses’ security. Of course, thanks to company-sponsored health plans, employees already trust employers with lots of personal health data, but wearables ramp up demands on that trust. “It doesn’t introduce the issue, but it has the same issues,” Egol says. “The difference is that now you have more personal information.”

Many businesses already ban employees and visitors, including customers, from using camera-equipped smartphones to record images of store displays, plant layouts, product prototypes and other sensitive data. But if wearables are to fulfill their true promise, businesses have to find a way to allow them in without letting secrets out.

For their part, employees favor letting wearables come to work. The PcW Strategy& study found 70 percent of employees think workplaces will permit wearables. In fact, 46 percent said companies should buy and provide wearables, similar to the way they do with company-supplied smartphones.

Egol’s report suggests businesses should study how wearables at work could affect productivity and health, and be open to the new opportunities these devices make possible. Employers will need to work to gain their employees’ trust and be transparent about how wearable-gathered employee data will be used. And planners need to keep in mind that Google Glass and its ilk are pioneers of a new technology likely to evolve significantly and raise unforeseeable new uses and issues.

Miraglia says one thing businesses should be open to is restricting or banning wearable recording devices at work. Unless wearables are required for work, she sees no problem with treating them like other recording devices. “If you have a consistent rule to that effect," she says, "it protects the privacy of the individual and the privacy of the corporation.”

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