Businesses today are busy automating, embracing big data and trying to figure out what the Internet of Things means for them, but what about the workplace? With 'bring your own device' (BYOD) firmly embedded, smart devices and wearables are about to fuel a new focus on smart, intuitive digital services for employees.
Welcome to the office, the next major connected ecosystem, and we're going to explore this brave new world over the following slides…
Smart apps at work
The first phase of the digitisation of the office is about bringing together existing technologies as smart apps. "We designed a system for a bank in Istanbul that helped the staff plan their day and interact with customers," says Mark Curtis, co-founder and chief client officer at design and innovation consultancy firm Fjord, who describes how the dashboard collates information on meetings, targets and also includes internal communications.
"We built into the system live mapping linked to a live calendar, which automatically detects where the next meeting is, gives traffic alerts, and tells them when to leave – it's an early and relatively simple example of what will soon be possible."
Such data-harvesting apps are possible now, though offices and workplaces are yet to see the emergence of an iconic smart device, such as Nest or Philips Hue smart bulbs in the world of smart homes. However, Curtis says that any technology that takes things off the 'thinking list' is potentially a game-changer.
Wearable cameras and mobile workers
Many of the changes we're on the cusp of will mostly benefit those working away from the office. "The Ca7ch Lightbox is a wearable camera that could change the lives of a lot of field workers," says Curtis, who stresses the role technology has already played in creating a mobilised, independent workforce. "Equipping that workforce with wearable cameras is the kind of thing that has the potential to create different ways of managing people."
One of the biggest issues in the hotel industry is how to get the maximum efficiency from cleaning staff, which is currently hampered by the constant and unpredictable movement of guests. "You can do a lot with wrist wearables," says Curtis, who recommends a smartwatch for this particular task. "It's all about managing productivity, but there's a two-way flow," he says of technology that can track the movements of staff, such as Bluetooth beacons.
"It's difficult to imagine that this isn't going to drive out a great deal of efficiency, but changes like this need to be managed with care. Systems need to be designed with humans in mind – they need to involve staff."
Employers being able to track staff around a workplace has Orwellian overtones, so it will only take-off if staff get big benefits. "When an employee arrives in a location, an app could automatically log them in," says Mike Crooks, Head of Innovation, Mubaloo Innovation Lab.
"The app would know who the user is, it would then trigger the right contextual information, based on who they are and what they need," adds Crooks. "This could then prompt them to follow the right process for their job. The app would give them the right information, helping to assist them and possibly navigate them elsewhere."
Sit down at your desk and you could be sensed, and perhaps automatically logged-in to a system hands-free. "We will see an increasing number of context-aware applications where the internet will combine data from many different data sources," says Martin Gunnarsson, Director Product Strategies at IFS Labs, who gives the example of a field service engineer who needs to service power grid equipment, for whom data can be presented in a much more automated way.
"The GPS can set my location and provide asset information as to where I'm standing," he notes.
Navigating offices - and tracking colleagues
There is another dimension to staff being tracked that could socialise work in clever ways. "We have a client who runs a co-working space called The Factory in Berlin, which has been beacon-ised," says Trevor Longino, Head of PR and Marketing at beacon manufacturer Kontakt.io. "Say I'm at the office to meet Sean and I don't know where he is. With beacons installed, I can see if he's in the building, where he is, and be guided through the office to exactly where he is."
You could even receive an alert when someone arrives at the office, if they want to make themselves 'seen' by the beacons. It would also be possible for an office worker to send a message to everyone sitting near them, perhaps to find out if anyone is going for lunch.
Will Google Glass make a comeback?
A massive failure in the mainstream they may have been, but smart glasses like Google Glass have a huge future in the workplace. "Consumers don't yet see the value in having a screen constantly in your view when out and about," says Gunnarsson. "On the flipside, I have a strong belief in the success of the workplace-centric Google Glass."
Google recently announced that its 'Glass at Work Certified Partners' are enterprise developers including APX, Augmedix, Crowdoptic, GuidiGO and Wearable Intelligence, which should mean hands-free, real-time, context-aware apps for business.
IFS Labs has developed a showcase on Google Glass where a technician can receive work instructions via images in the eyepiece, with audio talking them through actions, such as performing a service on a coffee machine. The maintenance worker can ditch the manuals. "In the future, augmented reality and holograms will allow users to have information presented in a 3D perspective, which will really change and adapt the way we work," says Gunnarsson.
Google Glass may lack acceptability as a wearable device in public, but the augmentation technology at its core will be extremely helpful in some professions.
"We shouldn't write-off Google Glass, it's very broad-minded," says Curtis. "If you look at the advantages of having a feed of data to your eyes, and the layer of voice control that can be applied, it has huge potential as a workforce-enabler for engineers or anyone doing skilled work with small or large objects – and that includes surgeons – who could have their knowledge-base significantly improved by Google Glass."
Making meetings more productive
How about a self-regulating, self-reliant meeting room? "We'll see cheap sensors attached to rooms, equipment, and supplies," says Curtis of creeping office digitisation, "and it could all come together to make meeting more effective." A wearable or phone can be used to unlock a meeting room, of course, but there's much more to it than that. If a system knows where all the people who are coming to a meeting are, who's going to be late, and it can order the correct equipment needed for a meeting, the time efficiency savings are potentially huge.
"Beacons are also being used to help identify when meeting rooms are available, which is especially useful if a room has been booked for over an hour, yet only used for 20 minutes," says Crooks. The opposite works, too – if a meeting is running over time and encroaching on a time when the room is booked, everyone in the meeting room can receive a message telling them to vacate in, say, the next five minutes.
"All offices struggle with unproductive meetings, and using technology to improve their efficiency will provide a route to persuading staff that wearing wearables has a benefit," says Curtis. "This technology will be massive in the next two or three years."