Lorrie Jordheim loves wearing her company-issued Fitbit.
The step-tracking armband she’s worn since her employer, BPAmerica, rolled out its health and wellness initiative last year has helped her lose weight, lower her health care premiums, and better connect with coworkers around the water cooler.
"It's an easy way to start up a conversation with someone, asking them how many steps they've got," says Jordheim, who works out of BP’s headquarters in Alaska as the administrator to the vice president of the Global Wells Organization. "It's a great bond builder between us. It builds camaraderie, and it’s something all BP employees now have in common."
According to Chris Phalen, the health and welfare benefits consultant for BP America, over 90% of BP employees participated in the voluntary, company-wide health initiative. He adds that the program has improved moral, contributed to the corporate culture, improved the health of employees, and lowered insurance rates for both the company as well as individuals.
Though it’s among the most basic wearable devices currently on the market, step-tracking armbands are only the first move in the shift toward incorporating wearable technologies into the workplace. Wearable technologies are still in their infancy, but a number of companies have already found practical uses for the next generation of connected devices.
Enterprise software behemoth SAP recently put two new head-mounted display-based applications through beta testing, and is preparing to release them in October. The SAP AR Warehouse Picker and SAP AR Service Technician help increase productivity and safety while reducing errors for employees working in warehouses or in the field. The applications provide directions for navigating through those environments, 3-D models to assist in repairs, and direct communication with supervisors and technicians when further assistance is required.
"In certain industries, especially in warehouse and field services, you'll see that almost all of the employees are wearing safety glasses, so to add a wearable computer to that is not a big stretch, and it gives them an extra hand free to perform their jobs more safely and accurately," says Josh Waddell, vice president of the mobile innovation center at SAP.
Field and warehouse employees may be natural early adopters for goggle-replacing wearable technologies, but the service industry has been flirting with the idea of incorporating head-mounted displays into their premium services as well.
In The Service Industry
After equipping their Upper Class Wing check-in staff at Heathrow Airport with a variety of devices on a two-month trial basis—including smartwatches, heads-up displays, and traditional handhelds—Virgin Atlantic concluded that Google Glass enabled their employees to provide the best service to its premium customers.
"We got a pretty firm set of data out of the trials, which said that the Google Glass was the least intrusive of the three devices, and we're just finalizing putting that into full production," says Dave Bulman, director of technology for Virgin Atlantic. "The impact (of wearable devices) for us in this industry is going to be pretty massive."
Bulman adds that the Google Glass provided staff with the most data on their customers’ itinerary—including flight delay updates, frequent flier point balances, upgrade options, and weather forecasts at their destination—while remaining the least invasive.
Unlike the hands-on environment of the service industry, however, the benefit of wearable devices within an office environment is less obvious to most employers, at least beyond fitness bands. While most research is only preliminary, there are at least some indications that such devices will provide advantages to the office-bound employee as well.
"In the preliminary results in our study the productivity of those wearing the wearables increased by eight-and-a-half percent in relation to the control groups," says Chris Brauer, who led a study on the potential impacts of wearable devices in office environments at the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In our early-stage research we see wearables playing a really critical role in the workplaces of the future, and our feeling is that organizations haven't really adapted to the possibilities that they've presented."
Brauer adds that security and privacy concerns have held a lot of organizations back from early adoption, but the potential for increased productivity in the workplace provides some enticement. That’s because wearable technologies like smartwatches track the habits of their users, and provide insights on how to optimize their time.
"We often don't know very much about ourselves and what would make us more productive individually, and this kind of data can be very revealing in that respect," he says.
Wearable devices not only collect and display data that can help individuals improve their own habits, but newer devices will soon be able to provide vital business information as well.
Unlike the desktop, tablet, or even smartphone, the smaller screens of wearable devices limit their data output. As a result, wearable applications currently in development for the office environment focus on using big data solutions to provide the right person with the right information at the right time, and as concisely as possible.
Among the first business-focussed applications to be released into the wearable marketplace was developed by Alpine Metrics in partnership with Salesforce. The free Intelligence Forecasting application alerts salespeople of trends and information to help them make better decisions in real time.
"The adoption of technology like Alpine Metrics', that are really aimed at doing some kind of analytics behind the scenes—so that it's only showing you insights versus all this other data that may not matter—we're heavily adopting that right now, because we can see the productivity gains," says Mark Bernardo, general manager of professional services at General Electric.
While GE does not yet have a holistic initiative for introducing wearable technologies, and applications like Alpine Metrics’ Intelligence Forecasting are widely used on non-wearable devices, Bernardo believes the company will be "reaching a tipping point" sooner rather than later.
"The adoption (of such applications) is high, but is the adoption of using wearables as the native interface high? No, but I could see myself very quickly making the move from the exercise band I wear to a Pebble device or the new Apple Watch."