Putting the IoT to Work at the Office
By Tim Scargill
For a few years now, the IoT (Internet of Things) has been 'about to transform' our lives; and as a result, much has been written about the huge range of connected devices becoming available to consumers. With this technology comes great opportunities for enterprise, and naturally the way in which connectivity can make products more attractive to consumers is a major topic of conversation. One area that hasn't received as much attention however, is how the IoT can be employed internally in office environments to produce tangible business benefits.
The presence of connected devices in the office is nothing new; in conference rooms around the world, offices have been employing audio-visual solutions to enhance presentations and facilitate remote working. But smart boards and video-conferencing are just a taste of what's to come; leveraging the power of the IoT is how we will realize the more productive, more efficient and more intelligent workplaces of the future.
It's frustrating to think that although you might be putting in long hours, a significant proportion of the average day at the office is actually spent on unproductive tasks. One of the major culprits is organizing meetings - finding a spare room with the right space and equipment, adjusting blinds and lighting, connecting to that equipment - it's all time that could be better spent on something else. Thankfully IoT-enabled scheduling tools allow workers to book rooms remotely, the software automatically preventing double-booking, releasing rooms if they are not occupied, and even allocating the most appropriate room based on the number of attendees and their location. And when the time for the meeting comes, smart thermostats, lights and blinds (more on them later) will have already prepared a comfortable environment, with schedule-aware AV systems powered up and ready to go.
IoT products can help minimize the amount of time spent on many 'micro tasks' - think a fridge that can restock itself or a coffee maker that you can set brewing from your desk. Misplaced equipment is another common problem, and location tracking can help employees find what they need as quickly as possible; in fact many hospitals have already implemented this due to the time-critical nature of their operations. Plus, those less scrupulous employees will certainly be put off by the thought that any stolen items can be easily traced.
Even more benefits can be achieved when we consider each employee to be part of this connected ecosystem. The company Humanyze has trialed 'sociometric badges' with companies like Bank of America, which saw a 10 percent increase in productivity when they acted on data collected from call center workers. By monitoring location and social interactions the goal is to analyze and improve collaboration, and even understand how different spaces in the offices influence those interactions. However, there are obvious privacy concerns, so it is essential that companies fully engage and consult with their employees before introducing products like this.
Perhaps one of the most well-known IoT devices is the smart thermostat, which can provide another boost to productivity by automatically maintaining a pleasant working environment. The latest products are even able to learn the specific routines and preferences in different parts of an office and adjust conditions accordingly. To the same end, smart lighting, blinds and air quality monitors are also useful tools to consider. Installing all this smart infrastructure has the added benefit of reducing utilities costs through improved energy efficiency - connected thermostats, lighting and outlets can all eliminate wasted energy by powering down when they are not needed.
In fact, detecting how and when facilities are used is a key element of the smart office. As well as aiding scheduling tools, installing IoT sensors in conference rooms can help facility managers analyze if they are being used effectively - if we have several big conference room that are only ever populated by three or four people at a time, why not divide some of them up to provide more meeting spaces? This analysis of the data coming from IoT sensors in the office will be a big part of optimizing workplaces in the future.
There are a number of other potential benefits too; smart locks and the provisioning of 'virtual keys' will provide more secure, more flexible control over different parts of an office, while IoT-enabled security cameras allow easy monitoring of remote areas. We can improve product maintenance and reduce downtime by identifying problems before they occur (i.e. lights or an air conditioning unit can provide notifications that repairs may be necessary or that parts will need to be replaced), and there are also safety benefits when you extend that to products like fire extinguishers.
Although we have so far focused on IoT implementation inside an office building, it is important to recognize that the connected workplace is moving beyond the confines of a physical location. The growth of the mobile enterprise has been fuelled at least in part by the explosion in personal devices; the proliferation of first laptops and then smartphones enabled employees to work remotely much more frequently, and smartwatches and other wearable devices are increasingly popular too. Companies need to be aware of how these devices are being used among their workforce, as a matter of both security and work-life balance.
One of the next big developments when it comes to personal devices is the connected car. 86% of America's workforce commute by car, and on average they spend 38 hours a year stuck in traffic, which equates to a huge amount of wasted time. However, new models are now incorporating voice activated commands, allowing a driver to access calendar functions and other business applications. This will transform driving time into productive time, while IoT traffic management (the connected car receiving data from remote sensors to navigate the fastest route) will cut down the commute as much as possible.
Security and Other Considerations
Of course, no conversation about the IoT would be complete without mentioning security. Those personal devices are clear sources of concern, recent reports particularly highlighting the vulnerability of the connected car. The handling and storage of company data must be subject to a strong acceptable use policy, and the range of different IoT devices means encryption is a complex issue. However, it is vital that complexity does not deter action, because the financial impact of data breaches can be huge - they cost the healthcare industry alone $5.6 billion per year.
There is also the growing issue of WiFi consumption. In 2013 the typical family home had 10 internet-connected devices; this has already increased to 17 devices per home in 2017 and is predicted to reach 50 by 2022. We've all experienced how painfully slow browsing can be because of shared bandwidth, so how can we expect existing office networks to support an explosion of new devices? The good news is that solutions are being developed with this problem in mind - technologies such as LiFi and LoRa as well as new standards for WiFi and Bluetooth are designed to connect large numbers of devices in an energy-efficient manner, often with an increased range as well. The new cellular network on the horizon, 5G, will also help employees stay connected remotely. For their part, IT managers should undertake a thorough review of the available options to decide which technology will be most suitable for them going forward.
The Future and IoT Analytics
It is clear that we are only at the start of the journey when it comes to the integration of IoT devices into the workplace. There are many benefits to implementing this new technology, but the reality of the office environment and the employer-employee relationship makes a truly smart office a more challenging prospect than the smart home. How can we realize those benefits while at the same time addressing important issues of security, privacy, network speed and product compatibility, just to name a few? It will not be achieved overnight, but we have reason to be optimistic in that many are working hard to address these problems.
In fact, one of the biggest adoption drivers may not be in the development of new IoT devices, but in what we do with the data they produce. That mountain of data can be tackled more and more effectively with artificial intelligence technologies such as deep learning, and will provide as yet unseen insights. A whole new field of IoT analytics is emerging, and just as traditional business intelligence has enabled companies to understand their performance and make better decisions, so the information from office devices can be a competitive edge for both individuals and organizations. And as that becomes apparent, the transformation really will take off.