Smart offices: can IoT upgrade the traditional workplace?

19.03.2020
10 min.

Internet of things is the new black for forward-looking businesses. As the first tentative forays into the world of connectivity proved successful, enterprises of all industries have begun investing in IoT development in earnest.

Interestingly enough, business owners seem to recognize more potential in adopting IoT that customer-facing, according to the newly-published IoT Business Index 2020 by The Economist. Since 2017, the adoption score of enterprise IoT has been growing substantially and is now solidly in the early implementation phase, while the external IoT introduction rate failed to enter it.

Among the wealth of corporate IoT initiatives, smart office stands out as a dynamically developing technology. Zion Market Research anticipates this market to reach $49.7 billion by 2024, growing twice as large as in 2017.

Smart, or connected, office is an umbrella term for the technology that unites commercial buildings into a single network through internet-connected devices, thus helping streamline traditional workflows. Although no connected office is like another and the technology is nascent, several strong trends have already emerged in this area.

Smart meeting rooms

Meetings have hardly ever been anyone’s favorite thing, but today this essential component of almost everyone’s daily grind seems to be in even a deeper crisis. According to the large-scale 2019 State of the Meetings survey by the scheduling service Doodle, 71% of employees lose time every week due to poorly organized or canceled meetings. The respondents also ranked inefficient agenda as well as poor quality of phone and video reception as the three most irritating process disruptors. The consequences of unproductive meetings sum up to $399 billion wasted in the USA alone.

Ineffective meetings ranked by level of irritation

Even in the face of such tremendous time and money loss, meetings are worth keeping. An IoT-wired smart conference room that seamlessly connects stationary devices with the participants’ laptops and mobile devices has the potential to mitigate the shortcomings of the traditional meeting process and facilitate unhindered and efficient collaboration between in-person and remote attendees.

A whiteboard is perhaps the most basic meeting accessory, and the smart meeting room does not shy away from this tool either. What’s more, it includes an upgraded version. An interactive whiteboard wirelessly connects to the speaker’s laptop and projects the computer desktop to the audience, letting presenters share information in any format, from blueprints to charts, on the big screen. A smart board allows the presenter and their coworkers to easily manipulate the content, writing and drawing upon it with a pen or a stylus, or even live-editing the document.

Another essential of the IoT-enabled meeting room is a smart camera. A free-standing device with wide lenses and an in-built speaker, it enables the participants to sit around the room instead of crowding in front of a single laptop’s web camera to be seen or heard. Powered by automatic recognition, it adjusts to the attendees’ behavior and smoothly focuses on the person speaking. The camera wirelessly connects to the board and the rest of the conference room ecosystem and allows sharing a laptop or tablet screen with the remote participants.

An example of such a smart 360-degree camera is Meeting Owl Pro, released in November 2019.

Smart camera Meeting Owl Pro

Smart office space management

With the business real estate prices constantly trending upward, business owners are looking for ways to accommodate their growing workforce in available workspaces and ensure the maximum efficiency of facility use. Internet of things offers new opportunities for managing office space utilization and occupancy while securing tenants’ convenience.

Disagreements over the use of meeting rooms and other collaboration spaces are common for many offices. An IoT-powered booking system helps to rationalize space utilization and thus nip such discords in the bud. Installed in each meeting room, sensors will report relevant information about space availability to the booking system, excluding the possibility of double booking or underutilization.

Working in sync with lighting and HVAC systems, the sensors can automatically adjust the conditions to the occupancy levels. Finally, smart devices provide insights into how the spaces are actually utilized, helping facility managers make data-driven decisions about space planning.

Some enterprises take sustainable office space use to a new level and adopt the hot-desking approach, under which an employee does not have a workstation of their own but instead needs to reserve a new one each day. Although this approach has a debatable impact on employee productivity, this is a viable solution for companies with flexible hours. Still, such a sophisticated system requires a management solution to match, and IoT hits the spot here.

Retrofitting hot desks with occupancy sensors connected to the company’s app grants each employee real-time visibility into the available work spaces and helps easily find the way to the reserved desk. The gathered data can help managers to spot utilization trends and take actions to optimize the system further.

Smart lighting and HVAC

As the world grows more eco-conscious, workplace energy consumption is taking the center stage. The US Environmental Protection Agency has detected that the staggering 30% of the energy consumed by commercial buildings is wasted, which translates in substantial financial losses and unnecessary harm to the environment. Apart from this, eco-friendliness has become a decisive factor in choosing a workplace. In this light, business owners around the world acknowledge the need to minimize office energy footprint.

IoT smart office technologies can make resource consumption sustainable without restricting employees in any way. An intelligent IoT network can interconnect lighting and HVAC equipment, granting the responsible parties an unprecedented visibility and control over it.

The capability of such systems to maintain themselves is even more exciting. Embedded business intelligence software analyzes the data from internal and external sensors, helping managers adjust the operating modes of the devices accordingly either manually or automatically and tailor power consumption to the conditions. For example, the system can dim the lights at midday and brighten them as it gets darker or regulate ventilation depending on how crowded the room gets.

Apart from promoting need-based resource consumption, a data-driven HVAC and lighting ecosystem is sensitive to malfunctions and can detect and report equipment problems, thus preventing system disruptions.

Smart building security

While IT departments work around the clock to ward off ever-evolving cybersecurity threats, the approach to office building security is mainly traditional. However, outdated and predictable physical protection measures may turn a workspace into an easy target for perpetrators, and the entrance to the office into a no-barrier access to valuable corporate assets.

Connecting traditional security, surveillance and intrusion detection devices into an M2M ecosystem allows these devices to exchange information and interact with each other. Activity streams from entrances, CCTV cameras, and smart locks create an accurate and transparent digital footprint for every employee and visitor.

Moreover, environmental sensors can aid with detecting uncharacteristic activity within premises where cameras are absent and instantly set security mechanisms in motion. AI-enabled security software that is trained to recognize criminal activities has the potential to partially or completely replace the staff patrolling the perimeter or watching security camera monitors.

Smart employee health enablement

Enterprise-funded wellness programs have only recently become a common practice, but have already proven their positive effect on employees’ health and performance. As of today, health incentives are a must-have element of a corporate benefits package and a strong argument in favor of an employment offer. As fitness, healthy food, and medical insurance are becoming more accessible, C-suite is looking to introduce a new dimension to their wellness programs.

Percentage of employers in the U.S. who stated their company's wellness program had positive impacts

The already mentioned connected lighting and HVAC can serve the health promotion purpose too. Deeply absorbed in work, employees tend to neglect their physical comfort, forgetting to air the room or turn on the lights, and as a result, aggravating their fatigue. IoT-enabled devices can take on the environment regulating function to maintain healthy workplace conditions.

The movement sensors embedded into desks can track the worker’s physical activity and encourage them to take breaks. Based on sensor and device data, the software can run an extensive analysis of the overall activity and come with personalized health-promoting recommendations for each employee.

As more and more people acquire fitness watches and other wearable health tech, it presents another opportunity for enterprise wellness management. In this case, however, employees’ consent is crucial, as some may consider this measure an unacceptable invasion into their privacy.

Smart offices: 3 transformative use cases

Employee safety on business trips by Itransition

Today, project-related business travel is commonplace in every industry. A traveling employee’s wellbeing extends beyond the confines of traditional offices and becomes an extra concern for employers. To address this challenge, Itransition’s R&D team came up with a smart app for monitoring employees’ safety when they drive corporate rented cars when on business trips.

Analyzing the causes behind car accident injuries, the project team narrowed down their focus to the cause that is both common and preventable—the unfastened seatbelt. For this purpose, they developed the POC for an iOS/Android app that connects to the sensors in corporate vehicles. In each particular case, the HR specialist responsible for a business traveler’s safety would receive a push notification or an email alert as soon as the business traveler starts driving without a seat belt on.

Such data collected from vehicle sensors can help managers make informed improvements to internal business travel policies, which can potentially save companies millions of dollars on insurance premiums. Apart from corporate use, such apps can potentially prove beneficial for car rental services as well.

Sustainable office by Siemens

DB Schenker is one of the largest supply management and logistics company in Germany that serves companies at home and abroad. Growing more and more aware of the industry’s impact on the environment, the enterprise executives have adopted a more sustainable agenda. In this vein, it was decided to retrofit the DB Schenker headquarters building in Essen to reduce its effect on the surroundings and make the workplace more inspiring for its 900+ staff members.

Siemens, an established provider of smart solutions for corporate and domestic automation, was chosen to carry out this project. The engineering team equipped the building with light and thermal sensors that automatically adjusted blinds and thermostats depending on the sun angle and temperature inside and outside. Also, they installed connected operating units in each room that allow controlling the conditions manually. The devices help employees set up the most environmentally-friendly settings, triggering a red light indicator when the configuration is resource-heavy.

This smart office solution lets DB Schenker take control over its headquarters’ energy consumption and curtail emissions without any negative impact on employee productivity. Siemens predicts that the system’s benefits will increase over time, as the facility managers will be able to fine-tune the building’s energy consumption based on the collected sensor data.

Seamless hot-desking by Phillips

The Edge, the Amsterdam office of the consulting company Deloitte, is often hailed as the greenest and smartest commercial building. Heavily equipped with a broad range of connected sensors and devices, it stands out among other smart office IoT projects in many aspects, and particularly in facility management. While multiple renowned corporations—Microsoft, Lego, and Square, to name but a few—have adopted hot desking, none of them managed to streamline the process like Deloitte.

Addressing potential struggle with wayfinding, the Phillips team furnished the Edge office with a location-based technology. Sensors in each desk track and update the occupancy and allow employees to easily find vacant desks via the application map. Furthermore, employees can adjust the temperature and brightness levels at the selected hot desks remotely, before arriving.

As a result, a thousand hot desks in the Edge building successfully provide for over 2,500 employees. The staff easily finds their reserved workstations as well as other resources, like printers and coffee machines, and can work more productively without wasting time on organizational matters.

Overcoming barriers to connected office adoption

At present, the concept of the IoT-enabled office attracts attention and admiration of business stakeholders and decision-makers. However, sensors, network connectivity, a myriad of devices, and a fine mesh of big data to be interpreted make smart office no low hanging fruit. Apart from complexity, the technology adoption strongly hinges on stakeholders’ buy-in and its relevance to the corporate environment. Security and a steep learning curve are other common challenges that can hinder a smart office project.

Yet the three smart office use cases covered in this article are clear evidence that successful enterprise-grade IoT implementation is feasible when an IoT system is built with a clear understanding of the end goals and the consideration for end-users and the company’s specifics. It takes effort and investments to ride the IoT wave, but those who manage it benefit from a convenient and value-driving workplace.