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What’s next for the connected workplace?

Trevor Wignall, Digital and Innovation Director for Sodexo UK, discusses the Internet of Things and why sometimes, humans do it better

Tech has enabled a seismic shift at home and at work – remember when phones were rudimentary and web conferences were held with several second delays? Smartphones, smartwatches, smart speakers, smart thermostats… the world around us keeps getting smarter. The Internet of Things (IoT) – as these smart devices are collectively known – has revolutionised our personal lives in less than a decade, and it’s estimated that their market will account for over £1 trillion of the global economy by 2019. The IoT has offered immediate improvements in the workplace, too – driving efficiencies in facilities management and enhancing our productivity. But where does it go from here?

The most valuable thing that IoT-supported workplace environments can offer is the ability to give back time to employees. Whether that’s making sure meetings start on time with perfectly functioning equipment or being able to skip the queue by ordering your morning coffee from a portal; quick wins like these offer businesses the opportunity to operate in a more effective manner, whilst also improving employee experience.

As well as giving employees precious time back, IoT systems help businesses run a whole lot smarter. Management tools like the helpdesk, café app and parking space finder collect real-time data using insights gained over time. This data can be used to unlock employee behaviours so that businesses can evolve and adapt accordingly. For example, by reducing how many meals will be prepared in the cafeteria when the trend suggests a 15 per cent lower occupation rate on Fridays.

Driving further efficiencies, sensors linked to smart energy management platforms respond to the real-time occupancy of a room to optimise employee comfort as well as reduce energy use. Beacon sensors can detect if someone forgot to close a window in a conference room, and on a larger scale, gather data to inform decisions about cleaning schedules if sensors on a soap dispenser or washroom door are showing particularly high levels of demand.

At Sodexo Nordic House in Stockholm, a variety of IoT solutions are being developed and tested, along with a smart building technology platform. The agile office and innovation centre is designed to demonstrate how insightful and responsive technology can bring together the interdependencies of people, buildings and technology to improve workplace experience, and reduce costs. The aim is to improve employees’ quality of life by better understanding their needs without interrupting their day-to-day workflow.

So far, key outcomes of the smart workplace building include an agile workplace design featuring more collaboration spaces and hot desk areas. The 2,200 m² office accommodates Sodexo’s central Nordic team and has 440 agile workplaces. The goal was to create an office environment that supports collaboration and better communication by enabling employees to work wherever and with whoever they want, when they want. Providing a workforce with the freedom to make individual choices spurs creativity and intuitiveness, helps to generate fresh ideas, and improves productivity and communication across different departments.

Other outcomes from Sodexo Nordic House include the transformation from a planned to a demand-led services model. Sensor-driven data drives intelligent decisions about cleaning and maintenance schedules, streamlining costs in the long run. Management platforms have also enabled greater efficiencies – from managing calendars and booking rooms to reporting maintenance issues and checking the weather or the daily cafeteria menu – all of which can be accessed in one place, at the touch of a button. By focusing on the use cases and asking what it is that frustrates employees or wastes their time in the workplace, we have found some other simple but really beneficial applications of IoT solutions, such as tracking and locating mobile equipment on a large campus site.

So, what next? Will robots and virtual PAs be taking over our offices? I think, for now, that’s unlikely. The problem with virtual PAs like Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana is their limited flexibility and the preferential responses programmed by their developers. Does Alexa only point you towards Amazon products or Cortana limit your search options to Bing? They’re still essentially gimmicks limited to basic tasks, and arguably designed to benefit the manufacturer more than the customer. The workplace is a complex environment and, so far, Artificial Intelligence is not ready to handle all types of queries many helpdesks and service providers encounter every day. We’ve all had those automated call experiences where we just want to get to the operator at the end of a list of irrelevant options. People will always crave the empathy and understanding that comes from human interaction and engagement; and when one robot costs the same as forty cleaners, where is the business case?

IoT isn’t just about the numbers, nor the short-term buzz of a new technology. Behind the potential increases in productivity is something much more beneficial to businesses and employees – an opportunity to operate and engage in a more effective manner. The improvements to comfort in physical spaces, the increased flexibility, the efficiency that is added to workflows and responsive services, and the precision that is brought into processes often fraught with human error, ultimately adds up and makes business sense. But despite all the
exciting benefits IoT solutions can offer, successful implementation requires careful planning. Communication is key, especially when it comes to addressing the inevitable concerns over data, security and privacy.

About Sarah OBeirne

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