Wearables: The next mobility frontier

From its roots as a quirky, consumer-centric niche just a few years ago, wearable technology has pushed its way into the headlines.

The recent launch of the Apple Watch generated huge amounts of media hype (not to mention almost a million pre-orders before release), suggesting that a growing number of organisations could be playing host to wearable devices over the coming months and years – if they aren’t already.

In general, wearable devices are capable of storing, transmitting and/or displaying business content. New evolutions of wearables – such as Apple’s announcements of watch OS 2 at its WWDC event – only expand the application capabilities of wearable devices. This means that many professionals will likely expect to start using them as part of their jobs.

Yet, as was the case with the mobile working revolution, wearable technology could present a series of challenges for IT departments – from the expanded range of operating systems to new device management requirements.

This raises important questions around the ways that wearables will impact the workplace, and how IT can meet the challenges that come with this technological shift.

Wearables in the office

It’s hard to overstate the implications of mobiles on the workplace. Aside from their impacts on the way we work, they’re increasingly shaping an entire generation of professionals reliant on mobile working to achieve their day-to-day tasks.

It comes as little surprise that this demographic (professionals with children under 18 and men between ages 18-34) is more likely than any other group to lead the wearable charge. One recent study found that 42 per cent of this demographic is planning to own or purchase a wearable device in order to carry out tasks such as reading emails, viewing documents and keeping pace with reminders. If businesses haven’t seen workers toting an Apple Watch or Samsung Gear just yet, it’s likely they will soon.

Businesses that already have an enterprise app policy in place should take note. Commonly used business tools such as Evernote and Salesforce are set to launch a range of enterprise-specific apps for Apple Watch and other wearable devices, so it will be important for IT to develop strategies to keep pace with wearable device uptake in the workplace.

To block or not to block?

When employee-owned technologies began entering the workplace, the first reaction of many IT departments was to err on the side of caution and restrict or even block their usage.

Understandable perhaps, but ultimately, this proved to be an ineffective approach as many employees managed to circumvent blocks with tools including personal data plans and even mail accounts. As wearables enter the workplace discussion further, IT’s options for restriction shrink even more so.

One potential approach may be to blacklist the app that pairs a smartwatch to a phone where possible, although not all wearable devices rely on such an app. Another option may be to disable Bluetooth functionality on the device – however, this could potentially be hazardous for workers using Bluetooth-connected wearables to manage certain health conditions.

Both tactics ultimately fall short when one considers that many wearables operate via an independent network connection and don’t require pairing in order to access the Internet.

Engage the workforce

Rather than blocking the technology entirely, IT stands to benefit from an approach that emphasises open communication and transparency with employees. IT should look to work with HR to introduce acceptable use policies, and to communicate the security risks and data limitations in an engaging and honest manner. This will likely help to build a culture of trust around devices and reduce chances of employees employing new shadow IT tactics.

In order to remain as open and engaging as possible, it will be important for IT to actively solicit feedback around how wearables are being used in the workplace. This will help to establish a two-way dialogue, giving IT an ‘in’ to issue advice on the productivity benefits of smartwatches, and to gather data to incorporate into company support initiatives and other training programmes.

Blocking the use of wearables outright is likely to be impractical in most cases, so IT’s best bet is to position itself as a trusted technology adviser to the wider workforce.

This is just the beginning

Wearable technology has arrived as BYOD’s next frontier, but it won’t be the last. For example, The Internet of Things is set to link our mobile devices with almost every device we use at home and in the workplace.

This is a growing trend in IT that presents some very real challenges for CIOs, as the number of endpoint vulnerabilities continues to increase.

Addressing the use of wearable technology today will help to create a framework from which to accommodate the use of trends like the Internet of Things further down the line.

Sean Ginevan, Senior Director of Strategy, MobileIron

Image source: Shutterstock/tereez