Smart watch
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Don’t call it a comeback! The workplace wearable tech market is on the rise.

Protocol Workplace

Welcome back to our Workplace newsletter. Today: We’ve come a long way since the plastic pedometer, healthy workplace debates, and the current state of remote work.

The return of the workplace wearable

When I think of workplace wearables, I think pedometers. In fact, I think of a very specific kind of pedometer. Stick with me here. It’s the early 2000s, you have your bright yellow Walkman, white sneakers paired with your favorite work attire and a plastic, corporate-issued pedometer clipped on your belt, ready for that lunchtime walk. You’re in a competition with your colleagues for who can get the most steps, and you refuse to lose.

Pre-Apple Watch, companies used wearable tech to promote employee well-being and control health care costs. As the years went on, leaders upped the ante from basic step counters to slightly trendier wearables like Fitbits, which track more than just steps. Some companies gave us free Apple Watches, sponsored by our health insurance plans. But that seemed a little too good to be true. We started to wonder why our employers expressed so much interest in tracking our physical health. Slowly, we began to question motives and learned more about location privacy.

But something interesting has been happening over the course of the pandemic: There’s been a resurgence in interest in enterprise wearables and a boost in the capabilities of the technology. More companies are experimenting with health tracking and coaching devices to shape internal policies, and manufacturers are utilizing cognitive assistance enhanced wearables to upskill and train employees at a faster pace. Experts say employees are embracing the data-collecting technology more willingly than you might think.

Arun Jayaraman, the executive director of the Technology and Innovation Hub at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, said he’s noticed more tech monitoring employees’ health and recovery.

  • Workplace wearables can monitor how long it takes to recover after a long work shift or business trip to help companies avoid worker burnout.
  • There’s a rise in technology focused on predicting personal health events — like when a worker will get injured or become burnt out — and catching them before they happen. (My colleague Anna Kramer has been looking into the warehouse worker safety wearables and will have more on that soon.)
  • “Because skilled labor is harder and harder to find, it’s expensive, and these companies want to keep the trained folks in a steady state … These variables can act as a quasi-monitoring capability almost like a human resource department,” said Jayaraman.
  • Jayaraman believes the future of work wearables is moving toward computer vision, “where people just use their smartphone cameras to track behaviors and track motion and movement.”
  • It was originally, and perhaps most famously, used to monitor crime or suspicious behavior in China, but now is being utilized by doctors to do health monitoring like Parkinson’s and stroke detection, Jayaraman said.

Popular use cases and adoption you might consider for your workforce:

  • Tracking physical activity, movement and sleep (for employees who opt in).
  • Jayaraman points to the NBA’s adoption of the Oura ring, which measures health metrics that are shared with coaches.
  • Possible downsides you should keep in mind: the imperfect nature of the algorithms. Jayaraman said some people have learned to game the technology, and the data companies receive is only as good as what employees are willing to genuinely share.

What we’re seeing enter the workplace and what you might consider in the future for your own employees:

  • You can expect to see a lot more cognitive assistance wearables used for upskilling and training warehouse workers.
  • Myke Miller, managing director with Deloitte Consulting and dean of Deloitte’s Cloud Institute, told Protocol how this works in aircraft manufacturing: “If I'm putting a screw into an airframe rivet, there may be three different options for what type of screw goes in this particular spot. If I'm using a cognitive device, it can actually recognize that I've picked up the wrong rivet to go in this particular spot in the airframe and it can blink red or give me some indicators to help me be more effective in terms of that day-to-day performance,” he said.
— Amber Burton, reporter (email | twitter)

How to stoke debate without getting mean

Tired of walking on eggshells at work? You may want to take a page out of Appian’s playbook. The cloud computing company has fostered a “debate culture” since its founding in 1999, founder and CEO Matt Calkins told me. “Appian takes it to an extreme that I don’t think other companies do,” Calkins said. That means encouraging new employees to vocally disagree with anyone at the company, including him, because he believes respectful dissent leads to better ideas. The keys to doing this well are a foundation of respect and the ability to resolve the debate, and it helps to publicly praise employees for their dissent. Workers are asked to keep the debate to business decisions — Appian discourages political debate at work — but Calkins said that Appian’s debate culture had actually helped his team withstand a “radioactive” political climate in the U.S. “You cannot have a debate culture without first respect,” Calkins said.

Read the full story.

Allison Levitsky, reporter (email | twitter)


The competitive edge of digital solutions: For the last 50 years, SAP has worked closely with our customers to solve some of the world’s most intricate problems. We have also seen, and have been a part of, rapid accelerations in technology in response. Across industries, certain paths have emerged to help businesses manage the unexpected challenges over the last few years.

Read more from SAP

Who’s working where now?

Almost 60% of U.S. workers can now work remotely at least some of the time, according to McKinsey’s new American Opportunity Survey. And for those who can work remotely, around one-third are doing so full-time.

  • Most workers with remote flexibility are spending some time in the office. 18% go three days a week, 16% go twice a week and 13% go four days a week. 10% go in once a week.
  • The average employee who can work from home now does so 3.3 days a week, but that varies across demographics. Men, workers under age 35 and employees who make less than $75,000 a year all spend more time in the office, averaging at least two days on site per week.
  • Flexible work remains a huge talent magnet, with 21% of job seekers naming it as their reason for looking for a new job.
— Allison Levitsky, reporter (email | twitter)

More stories from us

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Protocol sits down with the crypto CEO who is ruffling feathers with his comments on the company’s “apolitical culture.”


The competitive edge of digital solutions: When companies invest in maintaining their “green ledger” with the same commitment they have to their financial ledgers, they will be able to connect their environmental, social, and financial data holistically so they can steer their business towards sustainability. At the end of the day, what gets measured, gets managed.

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Around the internet

A roundup of workplace news from the farthest corners of the internet.

Two former Gigafactory workers are suing Tesla. The plaintiffs allege that the company did not provide the 60 days of advance notice required by law before laying them off.

Read this terrifying description of the corporate wellness bro, if you dare.

Hackers tricked a senior engineer at Axie Infinity into opening a fake job ad. It led to $540 million in losses for Ethereum-linked sidechain Ronin.

This founder tweets that being a digital nomad actually sucks.

Some of us have some very strong feelings about Slack, and an ex-Facebooker who worked on Workplace from Meta created a website for us.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to

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