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The COVID-19 office buyers' guide: Wearables

If you want to open your office, here's what to know before investing in wearables.

Fitbit

Wearable devices could help companies monitor their employees' movements and health.

Photo: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Fitbit Local

Offices around the world are starting to think about how they can safely reopen, and a lot of tech companies are looking to capitalize on the fear of congregating large groups of people in small spaces. Some technology may help keep office workers safe; some may just give the illusion of safety. Protocol spoke with experts to help you determine which technologies you should actually think about investing in — and which you can avoid.

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Over the last decade, wearables have gone from something to track your steps as you go out for a run to tiny computers you wear on your wrist, even in the middle of a lake. But with all of their power, they haven't really taken hold in enterprise. COVID-19 may change that.

In just the last few weeks, companies have spun up new wearable products and reworked existing ones to supply the growing demand for devices that can track employees and make sure they're staying safe. Protocol spoke with companies and experts in the wearables world and found that these devices, although expensive, may be just what companies are looking for if they want to track social distancing throughout the workplace.

The benefits

There are essentially two types of wearables that employers could be considering: ones that track the location and movement of employees, and ones that monitor employees' health. There are devices that can do both, but many are being marketed as doing one or the other.

In the case of proximity tracking, devices can be used for monitoring compliance with social distancing guidelines, as well as for contact tracing in case someone gets sick. Depending on the device, they can work off of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or RFID; if two wearables come into close contact with each other, they can ping their respective wearers that they're too close to someone else, as well as potentially log that information and upload it to a manager's dashboard.

Haytham Elhawary, the CEO of workplace wearable device company Kinetic, told Protocol that the company decided to pivot to offering proximity warnings and contact tracing in its wearables after requests from existing clients. Kinetic's wearables, which are reminiscent of pagers from a bygone era, were designed to monitor workers' posture, but after a software update, they could be used for tracking.

"We built it with the idea of future-proofing it, not thinking that we were going to use it too quickly," Elhawary said. "As we've got these requests, we started figuring out we have the technology and the device to detect distance between devices that would allow us to do social distancing and proximity alerts."

Much like with posture tracking, Kinetic's devices now gamify how well workers have socially distanced. The wearable will tell them how many people they spent more than 10 minutes near the day before and how many times they came within 6 feet of someone. The devices are also connected to a software dashboard that can show managers how safely their employees are operating. And if someone gets sick, it can help them more easily figure out who to quarantine, given that remembering every conversation you've had over the last few weeks isn't a simple task.

"If someone gets sick, and you have to figure out who are all the workers that were in contact with them for more than 10 minutes over the last two weeks — and I don't even remember what I had for breakfast," Elhawary said.

Kinetic wearables in a warehouse. Kinetic's proximity-sensing wearable in action. Photo: Courtesy of Kinetic

There are other proximity trackers that use other form factors often found in the office that don't look like an '80s throwback. RightCrowd, for example, has created a Bluetooth-based monitor that's built into an ID badge lanyard that can alert the wearer to when they're too close to people. Proxxi, a Canadian safety-tech company, has also released Halo, which looks like a modern Fitbit, for distance monitoring and contact tracing.

For health-tracking wearables, the best way to track any changes in someone's body right now is to use their heart rate. Changes in resting heart rate over a period of time can potentially determine whether someone is ill, possibly even before they would realize it, according to the Michael Snyder, chair of Stanford Medicine's Department of Genetics. Snyder is working with Fitbit and Scripps to create a database that could potentially determine whether people wearing heart-rate-tracking wearables could be shown to have COVID-19 before they show symptoms. "We think smartwatches and rings can be very powerful sensors for when you're ill," Snyder told Protocol. "They've very scalable."

Related: The COVID-19 office buyers' guide: Temperature scanning

The benefits are pretty obvious: You'll know, to some degree, if your employees are getting sick. For Snyder's work, the project is only just coming out of beta for anyone to sign up to track symptoms, but he said he thinks it's a possible scenario that in six months, an app based on his team's work could be mandatory for employees to install on their company-issued wearable. The current study, although supported by Fitbit, is platform-agnostic.

"I think it would give people a head's up — in one case we picked up somebody 10 days early," Snyder said of the early test users. "That's pretty important, because that means there's 10 days they're not running around spreading it to everybody else."

Samsung has been working on a wearable, based on its Galaxy Watch Active2 watch, that it's marketing to office managers to track employees' movements for contact tracing and proximity monitoring. The devices, created in partnership with enterprise IoT company Radiant, can also monitor heart rates, but Samsung says in its marketing that it's not intended to diagnose any diseases. It's been testing the devices with Ford in Michigan since April. "Samsung is committed to developing and delivering solutions that adapt to and improve the ways we live and work," the company told Protocol. "We were able to jointly deliver a simple yet effective social distancing solution in a very short time to help folks get back to work."

The concerns

As with any coronavirus-related tech, nothing on its own is going to be a panacea. "We're not going to promise it's 100% perfect," Snyder said of his team's work, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be helpful. "These devices all make 250,000 measurements a day — or more," Snyder said. "They're sampling you all the time, so you can really pick up even subtle shifts pretty easily."

Efficacy aside, most of these devices aren't cheap, so deploying them at scale may be a real cost consideration for any company. RightCrowd's offerings start at more than $2,000 for five badges, and Proxxi's Halos are $100 each. Kinetic sells its devices on a leasing model, which covers software updates and any fault units. The devices start at around $200 per unit, but Elhawary said there are economies of scale for larger orders.

Unlike many of the consumer-grade wearable on the market, however, Elhawary's devices are meant to withstand warehouse environments. "Our device is designed to be rugged — it's waterproof, sweatproof, spillproof — it's a natural extension of already being in this industry," he said.

Some consumer devices are a little more fragile — and costly. The latest Series 5 Apple Watch, for example, starts at $399, and the older Series 3 model sells for $199. Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active2 starts at $280 for a consumer model (the company wasn't immediately available to comment on enterprise pricing). The cheapest Fitbit smart watch is $160, and its cheapest step-tracker with a heart-rate monitor is $100. If you employ a few thousand people, these costs can rack up quickly.

Before the pandemic, some companies had experimented with wearable programs based around wellness, according to Gartner senior analyst Alan Antin. But the devices themselves weren't the only cost; the support that goes along with hundreds or thousands of employees who have health questions is also a consideration. "It's very expensive to do that on a per-employee basis," Antin said. "So the majority of employee wellness programs are just not able to do that because you're trying to serve a large number of employees, and it just becomes very expensive."

"The technology is definitely there," Antin added, pointing out the fact that Fitbit already has an entire enterprise division. "It's really more the question of who's going to pay."

Should you invest?

Investing in employee wellness is a costly endeavor, although Antin argued that many of the things that will generally keep employees healthy (being active, for example) can also reduce the chances of a critical COVID-19 case.

For social distancing and contact tracing, it's seeming increasingly likely that these are practices every business will have to employ if and when they reopen. "I think until there's a vaccination, people will — especially in indoor facilities like warehouses — they're going to have to social distance," Elhawary said. And at least for the near future, these practices will likely not be going anywhere.

Antin said he expects Google and Apple to eventually extend the contact-tracing software they've been working on for mobile devices to watches, but whether it could be leveraged for specific employers is unclear. For now, the only way to ensure your workplace is socially distancing is to track it, and to do that, the simplest way would be wearables. If you can stomach the cost.

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