Wearables in the Workplace

October 1, 2015

 

“Houston, we have a problem.” 

 

During the 1970 Apollo 13 mission to the moon, astronaut Jack Swigert stirred the oxygen tanks in a routine procedure which ultimately produced this famous line. Shortly thereafter the engineers of mission control began examining every detail of the mayhem occurring on board the spacecraft — including the real-time vital signs of the 3 mission astronauts. 

 

The astronauts weren't wearing FitBits, Garmins or Apple Watches — and we certainly didn’t consider the contacts stuck to the bodies of the astronauts wearable computers at the time. But the practice of collecting real-time health data on individuals performing extremely important work is an interesting concept considering the tech landscape of today.

 

You can’t go anywhere without noticing someone sporting a fitness bracelet trying to reach their 10,000th step for the day. These activity trackers have taken hold of the times and allow personal users the ability to quantify, capture and analyze their own fitness data. The first devices to market collected just a few types of data: daily steps taken, heart rate, general calorie burn and sleep tracking. But we’re beginning to see additional monitors hit the street. The Apple Watch presently captures the aforementioned data, but there are rumors that new watch bands could bring additional sensors to the platform: blood oxygen levels, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Now again, these are only rumors, but with our ever-increasing rate of technological advancement it’s not far-fetched to believe these types of sensors will be commonplace in a few short years.

 

In addition to the growing number of sensors, there is a move to bring fitness data collection into the enterprise. This fall, FitBit (fitbit.com) is launching their newest “FitBit Captivate” campaign for corporate wellness. Their goal is to equip companies with a complete program to help employees stay healthy and lead more active lives. It starts by outfitting a portion of the workforce with FitBits and allowing staff the opportunity to share some or all of their data. Anthem has taken notice and begun to sponsor these initiatives and even offer significant discounts on health insurance for companies taking part. But where does all this personal data wind up?

 

I’m a technologist by trade and a futurist by passion; I love the what-ifs produced by this thought exploration. Within two years we’ll be capable of placing a greatly advanced health bracelet on every one of our employees. Employers will be able to deduce overall wellness using a variety of sensors. Are they running a fever? Is their blood pressure spiking? Do they have any alcohol in their system? It’s not inconceivable to picture an HR manager looking more like a nurse at the dashboard of an ICU with graphs pumping along on hundreds of staff simultaneously. 

 

And while we may not want or need to collect data on all our staff, there certainly are workers performing critical tasks where health status could be exceedingly valuable. From firefighters and police to airline pilots and school bus drivers — some professions have a higher degree of responsibility than others. So might that impact our view on how these devices are applied to our workforces?

 

I’m not coming to you with answers this month, just some looming potential. Like it or not, this new breed of technology is heading straight towards the enterprise. Whether we adopt these  coming technologies in the workplace or determine they’re solely for personal use will undoubtedly be an exciting dialogue.

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