When we consider the workplace of the future, many rightly focus on the impending AI revolution and the potential widespread loss of jobs to intelligent machines. A more immediate challenge for companies, though, is creating an environment in which technology augments working life for employees, for better and for worse. This is not to say that every office employee will be given Google’s Glass - not anytime soon, anyway.
Even so, ‘there’s a strong belief that wearable technology will take off in the workplace before the home because devices such as smart watches, intelligent ID badges, and fitness and health monitors can provide organizations with uncharted data collection points to greatly improve safety, productivity, collaboration, and overall workplace effectiveness,’ according to Workforce Institute director Joyce Maroney. Issues of privacy and necessity of some devices could hold the technology back, but here are the four key areas in which wearable technology could revolutionize the way we work.
For all of Microsoft’s attempts at product diversification, from cloud computing to a re-entrance into the smartphone market, the HoloLens remains its most exciting product. If the Google Glass revolution fell hopelessly short, Microsoft will hope that HoloLens can make the grade, and has focussed itself primarily on the professional market in opposition to Google’s ‘something-for-everyone’ pledge.
The most popular promotional video for HoloLens focusses almost exclusively on productivity and creativity using holograms - be it creating scale models during a design process, video conference calling handsfree whilst working, or viewing documents without the need for screens.
A perhaps under-considered area of augmented reality in work is in customer support. Providing both parties have access to AR technology, the likes of plumbers, electricians, or mechanics could view the issue via the customer’s device and direct them accordingly, complete with annotations and even holographic demonstrations. The scope for AR in work is incredible, though it could be some time before the technology is affordable enough to become commonplace.
The trend of businesses giving their employees fitness trackers is part of so-called ‘wellness’ programs. Oil giant BP gave 24,500 Fitbit trackers to its employees in 2015, and Spire Wellness estimate that 40-50% of ‘wellness’ programs at work will include fitness trackers as an incentive.
Some have questioned the motive behind offering these devices to employees, with privacy concerns rife and reports of employees feeling ‘under the microscope’ not uncommon. Sleeping habits, for example, could be an uncomfortable metric for employers to have access to. However, wearables like Spire’s stress tracker could be deployed to keep a handle on the wellbeing of a company’s employees, and Fitbit plans to make this kind of technology mainstream by embedding it into their products sooner rather than later. There are a plethora of ethical issues around the technology that need to be ironed out before its use will be accepted by most, but expect to see more and more companies gathering personal data about their employees while at work.
In large scale, process driven areas like the supply chain, wearable devices are already helping streamline work. Before the warehouse is a space automated by intelligent machines - as in the case of Amazon - there is every chance AR and wearable tech can help make the human warehouse staff more productive.
Last year, leading logistics company DHL trialed the use of smart glasses and augmented reality in a warehouse in the Netherlands. ‘Vision picking’ solutions helped staff in the picking process, increasing efficiency by 25% and essentially making staff error-free.
‘Vision picking enables hands-free order picking and greatly increases productivity. The technology significantly supports our staff and brings exciting value to our customers. However, this is just the first step in our innovation journey as we believe augmented reality will become relevant for even more supply chain areas,’ Jan-Willem De Jong, Business Unit Director Technology at DHL Supply Chain Benelux said. Technology has been used to direct warehouse staff to their next product by the quickest possible route, and the use of AR is an extension of that technological integration. DHL’s test was successful, and we can expect to see different incarnations of assistive wearable technology hitting the supply chain at a rapid pace.
A smartwatch for each employee
Perhaps the most easily deployed wearable technology in this list is the smartwatch. An extension of the smartphone, smartwatches offer a convenient way to keep employees updated both in the workplace and while on the move. All the benefits of a smartwatch translate to the workplace - the ability to keep track of meetings, read emails, be notified about changes in schedule, etc.
A smartwatch is, by a distance, the wearable employees would be most ready to accept as part of their daily lives. Some 27% of all wearable devices sold are smartwatches, and though most also monitor biometrics, the additional conveniences would make that a far more palatable prospect. Many companies already offer discount smartwatches to their employees, and more should consider encouraging their use - productivity would only rise.