Wearable tech: A solution looking for a problem?

20 June 2016

Since wearable technology first emerged about three or four years ago, it has quickly moved from sci-fi territory to everyday use. According to a survey we have just carried out with more than 2,000 working adults in the UK:

  • 86% own a smartphone
  • 20% own a fitness tracker such as Fitbit
  • 17% own a smartwatch.

Clearly, smart devices are taking off for consumers. And for employers, that’s an extremely attractive prospect – but so far, the use of wearables at work has remained stubbornly consistent. The data collected from wearable technology is of huge potential value to businesses if (and it’s the biggest of ifs) you can persuade employees to share their data – and our survey shows that that’s something people are reluctant to do.

We asked participants in our survey if they’d be willing to share personal data from a smartphone or smartwatch with their employer. In general, they were fairly comfortable with sharing unchanging ‘background information’ (58% said they’d share their marital status, for example) but less willing to share information about their personal behavior (only 31% would share details of how they use social media).

The participants’ feeling changed, though, when they were offered something in return for their data. When we asked if they’d be happy to share health-related information (such as exercise levels and blood pressure) and work-related information (such as commuting time) with their employer in exchange for a smartwatch, 46% said they’d take up the offer. But there were marked differences in the responses from different age groups; those aged between 18 and 34 were far more likely to take up the offer (59%) said yes, compared to the over 55s (just 30% said yes).

And if the information was collected in order to improve their working lives – by addressing stress or changing work hours to better suit their lifestyle – respondents were more likely to agree to sharing information. 68% of 18-to-34 year olds agreed, while around half of the 55+ age group said they were ‘slightly persuaded’.

This comes down to trust. 65% of participants in the survey think technology has a real role to play in their health and wellbeing and 61% are keen for their employer to take an active role in their wellbeing. But 38% don’t trust their employer to use the data for their benefit.

The key, though, is this: 25% of those that don’t trust their employer would be willing to share their data for an incentive such as increased pay or flexible working hours.

The secret to wearables isn’t that much of a secret, we just need to listen: Employees need to get something out of it too. Employees are far more likely to be willing to hand over their data if they get something in return, especially if that something is extra benefits. 47% of all employees said they’d share their information if flexible working was the result, while 38% would share it in exchange for free health screening.

If wearable tech is going to make the step from the consumer market to the workplace, employees need to be persuaded that there’s everything to gain and little to lose. That means that devices have to be simple to operate, properly integrated with other IT used by the business, non-intrusive and secure. And above all, that the employee gains at least as much from using it as their employer. If we can meet that challenge then the future is bright for wearables at work.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology on your industry, then please get in touch with Euan Cameron.

by Anthony Bruce Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Leader