The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way businesses operate. Restaurants are spreading out their tables, grocery stores are providing specific windows of time for at-risk individuals to shop, and stores are limiting the number of customers allowed inside at a time.
But what about staffing? Operations? Manufacturing plants and distribution centers and warehouses? What if we told you that companies like Amazon and Google are using wearable technology to help monitor the safety of their associates?
As quickly as business changed when the novel coronavirus first emerged, wearable technology has adapted just as quickly. Wearable tech, such as smartwatches, Fitbits, and Oura rings, were already gaining traction as medical monitors even prior to the pandemic.[i] The Apple Watch Series 5, announced back in September of 2019, has an ECG app with the capability to measure electrical signals from the wearer’s heart.[ii]
The technology was developed in partnership with Johnson & Johnson, with whom Apple has been collaborating on the Heartline Study. The Heartline Study is a nationwide heart health research study for people 65+ with an iPhone, and the primary goal of the research is to find new ways to detect signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is a leading cause of stroke.[iii] Thus, the ECG function of the Apple Watch was born, and Apple entered the world of medical monitoring.
When the pandemic bloomed across the globe, wearable tech as a medical monitor took on a new urgency. The US Navy wants to use wearable tech to monitor social distancing and issued a request for information early in July, looking for companies who can satisfy the need.[iv] The Navy isn’t the only one either; many companies have already launched systems to aid with social distancing in the workplace.
“Pre-COVID-19 workplace cultures will not automatically resume once public health concerns subside,” management consultancy group Gallup said. “Shrewd leaders are already anticipating this psychological shift and considering how to adjust to it.”
Wearable tech or Bluetooth enabled tech can signal employees when they’re within a close proximity with others to prevent clusters from forming. Amazon is using a machine learning model called Distance Assistant to monitor the distance between their associates. As part of this system, employees use wearable tech enabled with LED lights and audio alarms that alert the wearer when they’re violating social distancing rules.[v]
In the UK, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) partnered with Tharsus on a similar initiative. The two companies collaborated to support the creation and dissemination of wearable tech used to monitor and aid social distancing in the workplace. Their system is called “Bump” and it helps alert wearers when they’re getting too close to others. It also reports back on interactions, allowing for insight into movement on the manufacturing floor. MTC anticipates that Bump can be applied to not only manufacturing facilities but to offices, warehouses, labs, and social workplace environments throughout the UK.
“This is the first time in living memory that people have been told to socially distance for their own safety. At the same time, the pandemic has forced businesses to re-consider their responsibility as employers, with the health of workforces now more than ever one of the most important metrics facing leadership teams.
We have created Bump to solve these two issues – to give people the help they need to stay distanced and safe, and provide employers with the assurances they need so they can operate responsibly.”[vi]– Brian Palmer, Tharsus, CEO
Google, while generally a pioneer in technological advancement, falls a bit behind the eight ball in wearable tech. Google employees will not be returning to the office until July of 2021 at the earliest,[vii] and though they’re working on a deal to acquire Fitbit, the agreement is under close governmental scrutiny.
Critics are concerned about Google’s use of personal medical data. But Google wants in on the wearable tech industry, and they’re having trouble breaking in – the company doesn’t have a great track record with hardware. They’ve promised, however, that the “deal is about devices, not data,” and said that data would not be used for advertising purposes.[viii]
It’s no wonder Google wants in on the wearable tech industry; not only are these systems being used in the workplace, but they’re also being touted as the potential savior of the pandemic. Sort of.
Many people believe that wearable tech might be able to help identify symptoms of influenza or coronavirus and alert the wearer. Fitbits, Apple Watches, Oura Rings, and others can help monitor early symptoms, such as temperature, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and recurring cough. Of course, none of these devices can replace testing by a medical professional to diagnose the virus, but they can help signal red flags that spur wearers to go in for testing.[ix]
There are clearly issues with relying on technology to monitor your health in a global health crisis, but advancing technology could be the key to solving this pandemic – and maybe future ones too.
Questions for Marketing Managers to Consider:
- You work for Apple, whose Apple Watch has dominated the smartwatch industry. How would you change your positioning of the Apple Watch and its health-related capabilities to suit the current climate?
- What kind of messaging would you use to inform your stakeholders (both internal and external) of the steps you’re taking to protect their health and well-being – particularly as it relates to wearable technology?
- What are the ethical implications of large corporations monitoring the health of their customers through reported data?
[i] FinancialBuzz. (2020). Wearable Tech Gives Rise to New Options in Healthcare. Cision PR Newswire. Retrieved from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/wearable-tech-gives-rise-to-new-options-in-healthcare-301092001.html
[iv] Mitchell, Billy. (2020). The Navy wants to use wearable tech to fight spread of COVID-19. Fedscoop. Retrieved from https://www.fedscoop.com/wearable-tech-navy-covid19/
[v] Low, Jia Jen. (2020). Returning to the workplace with wearable tech, robots and QR codes. T_HQ. Retrieved from https://techhq.com/2020/07/returning-to-the-workplace-with-wearable-tech-robots-and-qr-codes/
[vi] Tyrrell, Michael. (2020). New wearable tech to aid social distancing trialed at MTC. Production Engineering Solutions. Retrieved from https://www.pesmedia.com/manufacturing-technology-centre-social-distancing-28072020/
[vii] Low, Jia Jen. (2020). Returning to the workplace with wearable tech, robots and QR codes. T_HQ. Retrieved from https://techhq.com/2020/07/returning-to-the-workplace-with-wearable-tech-robots-and-qr-codes/
[viii] Stables, James. (2020). Why wearable tech needs the Fitbit/Google deal to happen. Wareable. Retrieved from https://www.wareable.com/fitbit/why-wearables-need-fitbit-google-to-happen-8032
[ix] Stern, Joanna. (2020). Could You Have Covid-19? Soon Your Smartwatch or Smart Ring Might Tell You. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/could-you-have-covid-19-soon-your-smartwatch-or-smart-ring-might-tell-you-11595949072?mod=hp_lead_pos11