HM Insights

Wearable Technology: What do employers need to consider?

Wearable technology is back in the news this week with the launch of the Apple Watch, due to go on sale early next year. Apple’s imminent entry to the wearable technologies market has brought speculation that its gadget might be the one to crack mass market success, which has been elusive so far for existing products. Wearable Technology, or ‘tech togs’, is the incorporation of computer and advanced electronic technologies into clothing and accessories. As well as Smartwatches, the market range includes activity trackers, the CommBadge – a wearable Bluetooth personal communicator for Iphone and Android – and Augmented Reality Glasses such as the Google Glass, ‘where fashion meets technology’. The Glass launched earlier this year in the US and at the end of June here in the UK. It has provoked mixed reactions, leaving some mesmerised, but raising serious concerns in others about the implications for individual privacy and the confidentiality of corporate information.

Advocates regard its status as being the same as any other mobile device, a sort of ‘hands free extension’ of a Smartphone. However, due to piracy potential, Google Glass has been banned in UK cinemas and there have been concerns that wearing the device in public could make the wearer a target. In San Francisco there have been attacks on Google Glass wearers, resulting from members of the public feeling insecure and concerned that the device was invading their privacy. Such concerns may inhibit rapid growth in the market. Nonetheless, Apple is renowned for its particular strength in designing elegant and attractive products and a successful launch has been predicted for its market entrant, which will also be its first brand new product in four years.

What are the implications for employers in the coming years if these devices grow in popularity and become common in the workplace? For employers whose information and data is a particularly valued asset, there is a risk that confidential information could be easily compromised. Employers may want to get ahead of the game by thinking now about amending their policies to include practical measures and restrictions to promote information security.

On the other hand, there may be applications of the technology in the operations of some companies which can be harnessed to improve companies’ performance and service delivery. Currently only a few businesses utilise wearable technologies, but this is predicted to change and Virgin Atlantic has already taken to using Google Glass to deliver a hi-tech and personalised customer services to their air travellers. Their idea is to enhance the customer experience by having their ground staff greet travellers by name and use the technology to begin the check in process while updating the customer on the latest flight and weather information. There may be applications for many employers whose business includes interfacing with clients or customers, leading to devices being issued to employees for purposes connected with their roles.

Another potentially more controversial workplace application is the use by employers of the technology to collect data relating to the individual performance of staff, to track their whereabouts, and to supervise them. The range of scenarios is wide, but situations could easily be envisaged where the relationship of trust and confidence may be jeopardised by what is perceived to be overly intrusive monitoring or interference.

Employers harnessing the technology will require to ensure appropriate measures are taken to avoid accusations of ‘spying’ on their employees and customers and to promote compliance with existing laws such as the Data Protection Act 1998, the Human Rights Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and European laws on collection of personal data. At the same time, a carefully considered approach to the management of the risks which may accompany employees’ personal wishes to wear such devices at work will be needed. Workplace policies should be clear and well advertised, specifying the restrictions on the use of tech togs, as well as the consequences of non adherence.