How workplace wearables will make your employees more productive

Enterprise applications expanding

Businessman using smartwatch

(Guido Mieth/Getty)

If Andrew D’Souza succeeds, you may never need to remember a password or carry a key card to the office again. The president of Nymi believes the Toronto company’s wristband can eliminate those pesky inconveniences with its ability to determine an employee’s identity simply by measuring the wearer’s pulse. At first, Nymi planned to target consumers who wanted to seamlessly unlock their homes, cars and sundry mobile devices. “But as soon as we launched the Nymi Band last September, we had overwhelming interest from enterprise,” D’Souza recounts. “At a certain point, you have to listen to what the market is telling you.”

While consumers aren’t yet enthralled with wearable devices, businesses are. The market for enterprise wearable devices and applications could be worth as much as US$18 billion by 2019, according to ABI Research, a technology market intelligence firm. Wearables have the potential to increase productivity and job performance by allowing employees to perform tasks on the go via their smart watches or access information hands-free through voice-controlled headgear. Priced in the hundreds of dollars, these devices could also reduce company costs by replacing more expensive equipment, such as operating-room cameras or factory-floor display screens, with versatile tools that have recording, display and data collection capabilities.

Salesforce, for one, is betting big on wearables. Earlier this year, it launched a development kit for programmers to build enterprise applications for wearable tech, and the Nymi Band was one of the first devices to be supported by the platform. Brivo Labs, a U.S. firm, used the kit to integrate the Nymi Band into an office security system, meaning that employees wearing the device can seamlessly log in to any computer and enter any room for which they have permission.

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Deloitte’s U.K. division is using wearables to eradicate another office annoyance. Employees can tap their smart watches to clock in and out of jobs, removing the need to manually log data into time sheets. Any companies that bill by the hour, such as law firms, could deploy a similar system.

But the potential of workplace wearables extends beyond alleviating minor inconveniences, particularly when headsets and smart glasses are involved. Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada, cites the example of a warehouse worker searching for a particular parcel. “The ability to have a hands-free display that tells you, ‘The object you want is three aisles to your right, two levels up and behind a fragile object,’ is of enormous value,” he notes. “Virtually everybody we’ve talked to in the materials space says this is something they either have in pilots already or certainly have on their road map.”

The virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift could be used in the manufacturing industry to examine virtual models, while Google Glass could give surgeons hands-free access to information and allow them to create video records of their actions in case of malpractice suits. It’s also not hard to imagine a situation in which the person who comes to repair your washing machine uses a head-mounted device to pinpoint the problem, access schematics, call in an expert and take a picture to document completion of the task.

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For businesses, the upside of controlling the rollout of wearable devices is there is no need to develop a bring-your-own-device policy, as was the case with smartphones. In some situations, consumers first brought their personal smartphones into the workplace, creating headaches for IT managers. “[Wearables] are a tool, and they are a helpful and desirable tool, but one that as an employee I am completely happy for my company to own, upgrade and administer,” Stewart says.

Introducing wearables into workplaces could also address another significant problem such devices face in the consumer realm: the ick factor. A business using head-mounted wearables to identify customers and access their preferences could be regarded as invading privacy rather than attempting to customize or speed up interactions. But Daniel Debow, senior vice-president of emerging technologies at Salesforce, believes customers will get used to them. “We forget that when cellphones first came out, there was a huge hubbub,” he says. “It was only real estate agents and drug dealers who used big, bulky cellphones. They got cheaper, they got better, they became more unobtrusive—and then they became part of the fabric of our social acceptance.”

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Best of all, there’s plenty of room for innovation with wearable tech. “This is as much a platform for business applications, for new uses, for productivity, as the smartphone was,” Debow says.