By Prithvi Shergill, CHRO at HCL Technologies

Wearable devices have become an increasingly common lifestyle accessory and are often sighted in the workplace. Migrating from employee’s personal lives, wearables such as watches, fitness bands and glasses are becoming a part of the technology enabled workplace. Research by ADP UK found almost a fifth of staff have access to wearable technology at work and this number looks set to rise. Pew Research Centre estimated there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, up from the current 13 billion, and that this figure will include technology that is currently yet to be invented.

Employers and HR teams now have to sit up and take notice of this trend, asking how wearable technology might improve efficiencies while making sure it does not infringe upon the personal information of employees.

Utilising wearables in the workplace can benefit productivity greatly, by as much as 8.5% according to Goldsmiths, University of London. Being able to perform tasks such as confirming meeting rooms or checking a calendar at the touch of a button, they enable fast and effective communication with employees. The proximity of devices also ensures employees have less of a temptation to become distracted by their phone. Currently, mobile workers check their smartphones in excess of 150 times a day, taking 20 seconds a time. The ease of access to wearable devices can remove much of this ineffective time. Furthermore, by monitoring activity and incentivising movement, wearable technology can improve the health of employees and reduce the amount of time off due to illness.

It is also important to consider which parts of the business will benefit most from these advancements in technology. From a HR perspective, they make it easy for businesses to evaluate employee activities, increasing transparency for both parties. Furthermore, adopting wearables such as headsets or body cameras can help with training, enabling co-workers to share their on-the-job experiences. Depending on business need, this kind of technology also can improve security processes. The Metropolitan police in London have equipped officers with personal cameras to improve records and accountability. At HCL Technologies, we seek to utilise wearable technology to help teams collaborate faster and more effectively. Such devices will also give managers the opportunity to analyse how individuals conduct themselves, enabling bespoke training programmes to be put in place to improve each employee’s skills.

Furthermore, wearable devices are increasingly being utilised to monitor employee’s health. Companies now give members of staff fitness trackers in order to monitor how active they are as a part of wider wellness programmes. According to Gartner, in 2014 10,000 companies offered their employees such trackers, an impressive rise from a mere 2,000 organisations the year before. Such wearables can also be implemented in conjunction with health insurance schemes, encouraging individuals to improve their health in order to accumulate points and benefits such as free cinema tickets or discounts off gym memberships.

Yet in order to gain the most benefit from wearables, IT teams need to be prepared. In a similar way to when bring-your-own-device (BYOD) became a practice in the workplace, all of the new devices need to be secured and a policy developed to protect the corporate and personal data stored on them. There is now a need for companies to adopt rigorous encryption policies for wearable devices and reduce the risk of data leaks or theft.

Greater use of wearable devices also leads to concerns about employee’s right to privacy. It is also important to address the risk of data being compromised when it comes to employee’s personal information. A recent ADP survey found that more than half of employees (52%) are concerned about the amount of personal data employers can access through wearable devices. The importance of having good privacy policies is heightened by the possibility that these concerns could lead to workforces refusing to utilise wearables altogether. As many as one in five workers in the UK say that they would not be willing to use wearable devices at all, rendering any of their potential benefits and efficiencies void.

Gathering information about individual timings of tasks or individual health and fitness, may be useful for companies to monitor in order to improve efficiency, employee’s health and training. However, there is the risk of going too far. Employees could start to feel anxious about every movement being tracked or perhaps an inability to be autonomous in their work and appraisals. Therefore, it is important that the implementation of wearable devices is encouraged as optional. Individuals should feel the benefit of using such devices as much as their employer.

As the next generation of workplace tools, wearable devices present a great opportunity to HR departments and organisations. They offer a simple way to encourage productivity and advance learning but companies need to make sure this does not happen at the cost of employee engagement.