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IoT in the workplace: Welcome to the office of the future

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Tom McQueen, managing director UK at Futurice, looks at what connected offices could look like in the future.

Thousands of words have been written about the Internet of Things (IoT) and its potential to change the way in which people work. But what can we expect connected offices to look like in the future?

Real-time information

Initially the Internet of Things is likely to change office life in fairly small ways. One of the more straightforward applications for IoT technology in the office is to improve the way people connect with their work space and with each other.

Especially for open workspaces (50 people plus), early innovations are likely to focus on providing employees with up-to-the-minute information about their surroundings by answering questions such as where is the nearest quiet zone? Is the dish of the day still available at the office café? Is my favourite workstation free? Are the toilets occupied?

The real time data required to answer these questions is likely to be provided through multiple beacons, switches, cameras, sensors dotted around the office. Meanwhile heat maps can overlay an office map to show which areas of the office are particularly warm or cold, crowded, noisy or quiet. This information could be presented via a live map which employees can access via their smartphones over WiFi.

Connecting colleagues

Another area where we can expect IOT technology to improve the workplace is in helping employees in bigger organisations to connect with each other. Bluetooth beacon or WiFi triangulation could be used to provide a live map of the office which means that colleagues who choose to share their location can be seen on the map.

So, for example if you see from the map that a colleague is grabbing a coffee at the café, you can go over and join them. Integrating with platforms like Slack will make it even easier to share moments such as a celebrating a birthday.

If these predictions for the Office of the Future seem very specific, this is because much of the technology such as beacons, real time push and sensors to monitor seat occupancy, air quality and sitting posture are already available.

Transparency vs trust

It’s difficult to talk about the ‘Office of the Future’ without also mentioning workplace wearables ranging from Fitbit style health and wellness devices to smart caps which help prevent lorry drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Some forecasts suggest that the market for enterprise wearables could grow annually by 139% over the next few years.

While there is clearly a case for employees in high risk roles such as the police or firefighters to wear tracking devices in order to improve their safety, the use of wearables in more general work situations in order to monitor employees’ health and wellness or simply to keep tabs on staff, raises tricky ethical problems.

While the technology exists for employers to gain increased transparency around employee’s physical whereabouts and their state of health, any attempt to do so needs to be handled with great caution.

In my view, the future of work is about placing greater trust in staff, with low level/low responsibility tasks being automated or delegated to robots. Rather than increasing surveillance, companies thinking of using workplace wearables must ask themselves “what problem are we trying to solve?” If the problem is about trusting employees, then you need cultural solutions, not wearables ones.

Privacy and data

There are no two ways about it: more sensors, beacons and heatmaps and workplace wearables are likely to raise employee concerns around privacy and data.

For this reason, involving staff from the start of any IoT office or workplace wearables type experiment is key. Any experiment should be a choice for staff and it must be easy for those who do opt in, to quit at any time. There should also be clear and transparent rules around employee privacy and the use of any employee data gained from the experiment.

Engaging employees

IoT technology and work wearables have the potential to bring significant improvements to the quality of our lives at work.

But before investing in a whole load of smart tech, businesses need to ask what are the pain points in our existing workplace and how can the IoT or workplace wearables address these?

Be sure to engage employees in the discussion, design and development process around the office of the future or workplace wearables. What small changes would improve the quality of their working life? Involving staff right from the outset will result in better outcomes for everyone.

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