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For a long time, people in the vanguard of the technology industry have been exploring wearable technologies — how to integrate more different kinds of circuit boards, sensors and digital services into items that blur the line between devices and fashion accessories.

First, it was Bluetooth earbuds, and modern smart phones that spent more and more time in the average pocket. Now, with the grand release of items like the Apple iWatch and the FitBit, today’s newest collection of wearables are much more a part of our wardrobes than conventional minicomputers that we carry with us, unlike such dinosaurs as the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry.

The High-Tech Dress Code — Evidence of Wearables at Work

Some of the experts looking at today’s business world are concluding that it’s only a matter of time before new wearable devices catch on in the workplace.

A study called “The Human Cloud at Work: a Study into the Impact of Wearable Technologies in the Workplace” showed evidence that respondents were 8.5% more productive with wearables, and that using wearable technology increased morale by around 3.5%. The author of the report, Chris Brauer, called wearables “the biggest trend since tablet computing” and suggested more companies are starting to get on the bandwagon: “By using data from the devices, organisations can learn how human behaviours impact productivity, performance, wellbeing and job satisfaction.” Brauer said.

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Others are similarly optimistic about an eventual sea change toward wearables.

“The emerging types and increasing intelligence and data collection capabilities of new wearable technologies is a potential game changer.” Writes Wayne Eurek in a February post on Ricoh called The Return of A Dress Code? Wearable Technology in the Workplace.

Eurek also points out certain trends in wearable adoption — first of all, he says, a lot of the first people to use wearable devices in the field will be younger millennials. Studies also show that adoption is far more advanced in certain countries. For example, a global survey found that over 80% of workers in BRIC nations India and China already wear items like headsets, digital badges and scanners at work, with similar results for Mexican workers. On the other hand, the study puts American involvement at about 20%.

The American Dress Code

In the early days of technology, the common response by the American company was to ban devices altogether.

The basic idea is that employees will be distracted by these neat technologies, and lack focus on the task at hand.

And although you might think that American companies are now flocking to change their attitudes on wearables, that’s not necessarily the case.

Tyrone Miller is the president of Beebe, a single-office staffing service in Lancaster, PA. His firm handles Fortune 500 and government clients in a range of industries.

Miller said most clients don’t allow wearable technologies; the policy is to disallow any type of cell phone, Bluetooth or other device at work.

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“They’re not have it in the workplace.” Miller said. “Most clients don’t want the distraction.”

Other larger staffing companies are largely mum on how their clients are treating technology in their dress codes. Calls to regional Pennsylvania firm Mack Employment went unanswered by press time, and one global employer, Manpower, actually declined comment. But there’s another issue with efforts to transport wearable technologies at work that doesn’t come from management.

Worker Concerns

In the “land down under,” which also has a lower rate of wearable technology adoption than some of the countries mentioned above, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece called “Your Boss Wants You to Wear a Device” that illustrated some of the backlash from common workers about employers that do want digital devices used in the field.

Calling these efforts “big brother” and complaining about intrusion and loss of privacy and freedoms, critics pointed to ways that employees could use these technologies against workers, for instance, looking to see if they are actually in bed when they’re calling out for sick days.

The comments weren’t any more accommodating.

“The vast majority of employees will NEVER require that sort of primitive supervision.” wrote kanga. “What’s next, security staff hovering over employees with cattle prods!”

“What an appalling concept.” wrote Fairm in Sydney.

“I’d take it up with a Union.” wrote Steph in Brisbane.

True, not all devices are equally useful for this sort of uberveillance, but some of the reservations you still see about the omnipresence of high-tech gear in our lives shows how far we still have to go in figuring out just the right boundaries for our relationships with our flashy new toys. Meanwhile, look for your company dress code to start to take a more nuanced stance on wearable technology, to articulate the specific corporate cultures that help businesses compete in a wired world.

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