The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Business

March 26, 2014

Looking ahead to wearable tech in the workplace

The past four columns have been more serious than consumers of my worldly workplace wisdom have come to expect. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, or maybe an indication that I’ve begun viewing the working world with greater reverence.

Whatever the reason, I’d like to continue this sober trend by tackling an issue of monumental importance: wearable technology.

Human beings, as we all know from this sentence I’m writing, have an innate longing to adorn their bodies with technological advancements. That longing first came to light during the Pleistocene era, when some prehistoric humans attempted to “wear fire,“ a style choice archaeologists say did not catch on. (Well, technically it did catch on, which was part of the problem.)

Fast-forward past the back-mounted catapults worn by fashion-forward Roman soldiers and the Renaissance era’s burdensome pocket printing presses (which required pockets the size of small buildings) and you arrive at the modern day, which is shaping up to be the golden age of wearable tech.

Google recently announced a new version of its Android mobile operating system that’s specifically for use in wearable devices, from watches to glasses to clothing. Motorola has said it will use the new Android system - Android Wear - in its upcoming smart watch, the Moto 360.

Motorola’s company blog says the Moto 360 will tell you “what you need to know before you know you need it through subtle alerts and notifications. With just a twist of the wrist, you can see who’s emailing or calling, what time your next meeting is or a friend’s latest social post.“

As with Google Glass - technology of the face-mounted variety - you’ll be able to use the watch to search the Web, schedule appointments, send texts and do all manner of productive things that didn’t used to be watch-based. Apple is in the hunt as well, meaning it’s just a matter of time before I show up to work in a fashionable pair of iShorts.

So, you ask, why is America’s most-beloved workplace advice columnist blabbering on about all this wearable technology? There are two reasons:

1) It’s really cool and I spent the past four weeks doing stuff that’s really complicated and it’s my column so cut me some darn slack.

2) This technology will further blur the lines between our work and personal lives, and employers and employees should start considering what that means sooner rather than later.

We’ve lived for some time with devices like pagers and cellphones, electronic workplace tethers that could be slipped with relative ease. But once our technology is in our glasses, in our watches, in the brims of our hats or the soles of our shoes, it becomes far more a part of us, no matter where we are.

This brings with it tremendous advantages for workers, namely in terms of flexibility. The more our bodies can carry the technology once found only in cubicles, the further our bodies can stray from said cubicles.

People who might’ve missed a child’s school concert to monitor the completion of a project might now make that concert, equipped to discreetly get project updates and put out fires as needed. (Better to be present with a few distractions than to not be present at all.)

Study after study hammers home the proof that flexible work schedules make for happier workers, and happier workers perform at higher levels. So if workers accept the technology that’s coming, and if employers recognize how that technology can empower their workers, it should be a resounding win-win.

But there is a devil in these details: Where will the boundaries be? They’re already blurred by the mobile technology of the moment - smartphones and tablets and laptops. How much more will work time bleed into nonwork time once we’re near-fully wired?

A smart company doesn’t want a boss bothering a worker unnecessarily over the weekend, nor should it want a worker eschewing mind-clearing free time in favor of cranking out some work.

So I see the coming wave of wearable technology as a perfect opportunity for companies to examine this issue. I don’t think workplace policies have kept pace with technology, so this is a chance to re-evaluate.

Get workers and managers together and figure out rules that make sense. Put boundaries where you think they should be. Find ways to collectively - and intelligently - embrace these tools.

And do it now. Otherwise I’m going to just assume I can go to the beach every day and respond to messages on my iShorts.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppketribune.com or on Twitter RexWorksHere.

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