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Google Glass – Workplace asset or newest HR headache?

May 23, 2014

By Kristin Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Google Glass became available to consumers last week. It has caught the eyes of many CEOs and CIOs as they evaluate its potential uses in their businesses, and the impact of wearable electronics on their organizations. The potential benefits of Google Glass seem compelling, but the potential headaches it could bring to HR departments seem obvious as well.

In the run-up to the consumer launch, people who were interested in buying Google Glass could only do so via application and a privileged invitation, which came through the Google beta test program known as “Glass Explorer.” If chosen, they receive the privilege of dropping $1,500 for their personal copy.

For those of us who are not technologically proficient (I’m still trying to master my smartphone), Google Glass is a wearable computer in a headset that resembles a pair of eyeglasses.  It displays information directly in the user’s field of vision through a small screen. The user interacts with the device via voice control.  Glass syncs with Google’s vast array of real-time, mobile location-aware services.  Users can take pictures, record video, send messages, make phone calls, receive navigation assistance, play music, obtain information about what they are looking at, and much more.

According to Gartner, Inc. a leading information technology research and advisory company, the use of “smartglasses” have the potential to improve worker efficiency in sectors such as manufacturing, field service, retail and healthcare.  Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner, has indicated “In the next three to five years, the industry that is likely to experience the greatest benefit from smartglasses is field service, potentially increasing profits by $1 billion annually.  The greatest savings in field service will come from diagnosing and fixing problems more quickly and without needing to bring additional experts to remote sites.”

Smartglasses are currently on the bleeding edge of technology development. Not even 1% of companies in the U.S. currently use them at work. Gartner predicts that the technology will eventually become more mainstream, and in 10 years half of all companies in fields that could greatly benefit from them may provide these devices to a segment of their employee base.

Some ways that Google Glasses can help with added efficiency in an organization include these:

  • Providing “how-to” instructions and illustrations, enabling workers to perform tasks even if they don’t remember the procedures; the virtual assistant may serve as an interactive, hands-free “how-to” manual.
  • Using the photo and video features to document work-related activities; video can be stored as evidence that a job was performed correctly.
  • Delivering alerts directly to the user’s attention for those who need real-time information.
  • Video collaboration; employees at remote locations can communicate and share video of what they see with experienced workers, and thus more quickly diagnose and fix problems.  This is proving to be helpful in the medical field in diagnosing medical conditions.
  • Monitoring safety issues; the glasses could show when employees are not properly focused on their work.

Google Glasses may change the way firms deliver training to their employees. Content could be delivered directly to the field while the trainee is on the job, which could mean dispensing with the classroom altogether. Or, classroom training could morph from teaching subject content into teaching how to use smartglasses and accessing key information using voice commands.

As with everything in life, Google Glasses would seem to have inherent downsides to the organization. To begin with, they could give rise to significant privacy, security and ethical concerns. Since you are essentially wearing a mobile phone when you wear smartglasses, Google will know not only where you are, but what you are looking at.  

As organizations consider allowing this technology (whether employer-provided or not), here are some of the risk factors they will need to consider:

  • Privacy concerns; photos and video may be taken without an individual’s knowledge and consent.
  • Potential disclosure of proprietary information; confidential information may be more easily saved and publicized.
  • Loss of productivity issues and safety issues; employees may be focused on information through their smartglasses and not focused on job duties. They may create safety issues for those who drive and operate machinery as part of their jobs.
  • Harassment issues; employees may find the use of Google Glass by bosses or colleagues harassing and inappropriate. Or, they may record discoverable information such as discriminatory or harassing actions of co-workers or supervisors.
  • Accessing inappropriate information; users could access pornography and other inappropriate content.

So what should employers do?  As with any new technology, current policies (especially BYOD—“bring  bring your own device”) will need to be reviewed and modified to address changes and new capabilities.  The arrival on the scene of smartphones several years ago presented these same issues. Smartglasses simply raise those same risks even higher. Organizations will need to identify the behaviors and activities it will need to prohibit in order to limit its liability.

Smartglasses present both great opportunity and inherent risks to employers. It is too early to tell whether the technology will turn out to be a bigger asset than it will be a headache for HR professionals.

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