The devil wears hi-tech: wearable computing in the workplace

The reality is that adoption of wearable devices hasn’t exactly been plain sailing to date, despite the wealth of investment in product development. The 2014 CES show was hailed a ‘wrist revolution’ for the sheer number of smart watches that were released, and tech giants such as LG, Samsung, Sony, Huawei and Motorola have all launched their own versions.

Nobody, it seems, wants to repeat the mistake of eight years ago, when the Apple iPhone set all competitors back several years in a revolutionised mobile market. That includes, of course, Apple itself, which finds itself in the tricky situation of having to continue innovating to retain its first-rate brand reputation.

While no smart watch is yet to be considered a big success, and a lot of scepticism around their relevance remains, the vast industry backing – particularly from the hugely influential Apple – is likely to generate substantial adoption.

>See also: Wearable technology: a cyber risk on your wrist?

That means the enterprise must now take notice. Businesses found themselves tragically behind in developing mobility strategies that could control the onslaught of smartphones on corporate networks, and are unlikely to be forgiven if they are equally unprepared for wearable devices.

A recent study by security firm Trend Micro found that 79% of European organisations are already seeing an increasing number of staff bringing wearable devices into the workplace, with 77% actively encouraging their use.

While the research pointed to UK organisations as the most sceptical – with four in ten (39%) actively discouraging wearables in the workplace – 90% of all respondents said their IT or BYOD security policies will need to change to account for this trend.

One thing appears certain from the lessons learned from BYOD: a wait-and-see approach will not suffice.

‘There is no doubt that businesses know that their networks need to evolve,’ says Marcus Jewell, VP EMEA at Brocade. ‘As emerging technologies such as wearable technology and the Internet of Things put ever more pressure on existing infrastructures, it’s becoming increasingly likely that enterprise networks will buckle under the strain – costing businesses both time and money.’

So organisations need to consider the effect that this will have on the network before it’s too late. As more devices connect to the network and the amount of data increases, there will be significant performance implications, not just on the wireless infrastructure but on the entire IT network.

Firewalls and applications security will need to be re-evaluated to ensure secure access to the internet. With only so much traffic able to come and go through the firewall door at a time, wearables are likely to present bottleneck issues.

If organisations are serious about using wearable devices within the workplace, then they also need to think about the connectivity.

‘As with mobile devices, connectivity can often be lost when on the move, so it is important to ensure that wireless access points are put in suitable locations to optimise performance across the whole of the building,’ says Tris Simmons, networking expert at Netgear. ‘Choosing solutions that can be managed centrally will also help keep costs down.’

Any organisation where IT does not have oversight of employees’ mobile devices is not ready for wearables.

Without this capability, they have no way to monitor and control access to enterprise data, or separate corporate from personal applications on these devices. And even if they do have this oversight, they still may not be prepared for the influx of wearables.

‘Enterprises need to have a holistic BYOD strategy that is based on a mix of corporate culture and a rigorous enterprise-wide approach to security before wearables in the workplace deliver business value rather than enhanced risk,’ says Alan Hartwell, EMEA VP for security and identity solutions at Oracle.

Wearable value

Ultimately, enterprises should be in a position where they are not worrying about employees bringing personal wearable devices into the workplace, but actively encouraging their use.

As well as enhancing customer experience and success, they could improve organisational effectiveness and productivity, especially in sectors where real-time data is key.

With IDC predicting 112 million wearable devices in just three years’ time, businesses should actively seek ways they can engage with customers, partners and employees in new ways.

‘Sales personnel will be able to make discount requests and pull customer information regardless of their location, and customer-facing staff will be able to receive alerts about urgent issues in order to handle them more quickly, and both will be able to receive motivating notifications when they have reached a goal or received positive client feedback,’ says Raj Mistry, SVP for solutions engineering at Salesforce.

>See also: Is the future really bright for wearable technology? Only if businesses embrace it

Sarah Eccleston, director of enterprise networks and Internet of Things at Cisco UKI, adds, ‘When an elderly patient is wearing an internet-connected t-shirt, it can sense a fall and alert emergency services so an ambulance can attend immediately.

‘Similarly, when a prisoner is given a pre-release home visit, they can be given an internet-connected T-shirt for location tracking. If the prisoner attempts to escape or remove the T-shirt, it can “tell” the prison guard services that the biometric data has changed.’

Enterprises will use wearables in ways similar to those employed by cities and the public sector for better workforce location analytics, employee health monitoring, real estate interior design and productivity benefits.

But whether wearables are used for business purposes or personal usage, as more wearable devices connect to the network, the knock-on effects can be detrimental.

Aside from the challenge of managing and securing a multitude of new devices in the workplace, businesses may also find themselves faced with speed issues in their network – negatively affecting their ability to function as required.

Furthermore, with more devices and users to contend with, the risk of downtime intensifies as networks struggle to cope with the added congestion.

‘To mitigate any risks, organisations need to ensure that they consider the number of devices within the enterprise, rather than the number of workers,’ says Simmons. ‘For example, a workplace of 1,000 members of staff will not be limited to 1,000 devices. With mobile phones and wearable devices in the mix, it could easily be double this number, or more.’

Watch that security

As the trend becomes more prominent, security must become the key consideration for enterprise infrastructure and IT mobility strategies.

With every wave of new technology come the inevitable security threats, and the deeply personal nature of wearables makes them no exception. Modern consumer devices are inherently prone to leaks because they are built to explicitly make it easy for users to share data.

Popular consumer apps can easily move data outside corporate controls without the user knowing, creating huge security issues for the enterprise.

‘Designers need to think about security before they build these wearables, rather than after,’ says Phil Barnett, VP and GM of EMEA at Good Technology. ‘This means having expert involvement early on.

‘Secondly, if you keep your enterprise data in separate, encrypted containers on your phone or tablet, it is possible to keep your corporate data secure. That can mean controlling the flow of alerts to smart devices as well as controlling the flow of data between apps.’

With an ever-increasing array of connected devices reaching a greater audience, protecting data is only going to become more important, and equally challenging unless the right strategy is in place.

Organisations have finally started to address the BYOD security concerns, and most workplaces will have some form of rules and best practices in place. While a lot of this strategy is transferable, the apps that the wearable connects to need to be secure, and the mobile device that connects to the wearable should have appropriate anti-malware installed.

‘It gets a bit more complicated at device-level where wearables are concerned, as few will be capable of hosting anti-malware solutions,’ says George Anderson, director of product marketing at Webroot.

Wearables are likely to add complexity to the maze of technology configurations that already exist in organisations that have adopted BYOD policies.

Adam Diggins, solutions and pre-sales technology marketing manager at Toshiba, points to a choose-your-own- device (CYOD) strategy to ensure that the productivity and connectivity benefits of wearable devices can be maximised within a controlled enterprise IT environment.

>See also: Hype down, businesses really are taking wearable technology seriously

‘Such a strategy would enable IT teams to easily and securely manage this web of devices and operating systems while simultaneously enabling employees to benefit from the speed and mobility offered by wearable devices,’ he says.

‘A quasi-structured strategy is vital – after all, the potential benefits of wearables for businesses are far too great for it to be ignored completely.’

Whatever strategy is chosen, it is vital that companies use a security solution that is capable of analysing apps on mobile devices as well as the permissions these apps have, so that malicious or compromised apps cannot be downloaded and affect the network.

Ultimately, awareness and ongoing risk assessments are going to be the main security methods to minimise the threat of wearables in the workplace.

‘Alternatively, they may have to adopt blanket policies forbidding all wearables,’ says Anderson, ‘or create an acceptable list of devices, which will be extremely hard to police.’

What the experts say

'Organisations undoubtedly need to reassess their mobile strategies and must do this now. Wearables are already in the workplace and so organisations must react now. You’d be fighting a losing battle to try and stop their use in the workplace, just as we saw with BYOD. Surely then the solution must be to address the inherent security concerns these devices pose. Once this is complete organisations can get the maximum utility from them with less risk.'
– Jon Wrennall, CTO, Fujitsu UK & Ireland

'IT pros need to assess the security and privacy issues sooner rather than later, and also work out how to manage bandwidth. It is best for businesses to prepare early so there are no shocks as we saw with BYOD. The innovation stage is where the red flag should be raised, based on our experience with BYOD and what we can expect to happen with IoT and wearables.'
– Patrick Hubbard, head geek, SolarWinds

'Apple’s partnerships with IBM and Salesforce lay the foundation for a massive influx of new wearable devices offering exciting new ways of performing workday tasks. These companies’ respective market shares also provide each other with new in-roads – IBM and Salesforce capitalising on BYOD and Apple getting a bigger enterprise play. The deals may have come at exactly the right time to cause a wearables explosion among businesses.'
– Aaron Miller, chief architect, Avaya

'Wearables can be useful tools for users in the workplace, providing quick snippets of information at short notice when it is required. Activity tracking apps can also help to remind users to take a break when they have been stationary for too long – keeping employees fresh. Wearables are a delivery mechanism for important information, allowing users to view notifications quickly without having to delve into their smartphone.'
– Owen Evans, security researcher, MWR InfoSecurity

'2015 is set to be the year of the wearable with a recent Ipswitch survey showing that over a third of European businesses plan to introduce wearable technology to the workplace this year. Despite this, over three quarters of them also admit to having no policy for managing the impact. This is a risky strategy. Businesses need to learn from BYOD and both review and update policies and network infrastructure.'
– Alessandro Porro, VP of international, Ipswitch

'IT should avoid falling into the trap of merrily developing mobile app after mobile app. Instead of having a scattered approach to application development, which is likely to cause an unwieldy maintenance and management headache, IT needs to think about the underpinning platforms and architecture required to enable it to manage this growing demand for mobile, wearable and other tech devices in the enterprise.'
– Zahid Jiwa, VP UK and Ireland, Outsystems

'The current state of the wearables ecosystem is still very sparse as it is covered by many manufactures and quite a few operating systems. The most successful of which is the pebble watch which has only recently passed 1 million units shipped which is still small compared to the volumes of smart devices. However this fragmentation is one step removed from the enterprise systems because of the hiding of the device through the phone.'
– Will Powell, head of innovation, Keytree

'Some organisations with mobile workforces could stand to really benefit from wearables. On one hand they have the potential to be an effective way of getting data to employees and on the other companies can track employees with a view to optimising processes to increase operational efficiency. Companies that think they have the most to gain from wearables will be quicker off the mark than those where the business application is less clear.'
– Aingaran Pillai, founder and CTO, Zaizi

'As the wearable device market matures, their success in the enterprise will hinge on their use as part of a wider technology platform to provide timelier and better services to customers. The availability of real-time information on wearables will come from a variety of data-sources, and considerable businesses benefit will come from collecting data out of the office and inputting it into enterprise or service management systems via smart wearable devices, from time clocks to videos of assets.'
– Marne Martin, CEO, ServicePower

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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