IoT at Work: Is Your Office Wired for Success?

Written By: Nancy Pardo
  • 4/27/2016

At a trendy office complex in Stockholm, employees are arriving for work. They enter the secure building using an RFID chip implanted in their hand. The chip holds all kinds of personal information about its host, and can communicate with their smartphone.

“I use an app to scan my chip and you get all my contact details and my LinkedIn profile,” says Hannes Sjöblad, co-founder of biohacking group BioNyfiken, which is experimenting with the device.

The chip can be pretty useful, Sjöblad says, especially when you want to exchange details in a noisy bar or you can’t find your business cards.

In another district of Sweden, a start-up called Grindhouse Wetware is developing the implantable Northstar 2.0 chip especially designed to work with the Internet of Things (IoT).

The chip, together with motion sensors which enable gesture control, syncs to your smartphone so in theory, you could unlock your car, turn on a coffee machine, or begin a work presentation with just a wave of your fingers.

These are examples of how machines, computers, and humans can seamlessly interact with one another to improve efficiency. While some of us might cringe at being hooked up to the mainframe—or, more accurately, the cloud—24/7, many companies are offering employees an array of smart, connected gadgets which collect and quantify personal data to help improve performance and productivity.

Wearable wellness devices are one example.

Companies like BP and Target, are offering Fitbits to their employees on a voluntary basis to encourage movement and cut healthcare costs.

Fitbit executives say that while the company’s corporate services make up only 10 percent of its current business, it’s the fastest growing sector. The corporate wellness market is projected to be worth $11 billion by 2019, says Fitbit CEO James Park.

But it’s not just employee health that can be tracked with these kinds of connected devices. Wearables can also provide valuable insight into the health of a business.

British supermarket chain Tesco uses armbands at some of its distribution centers in order to track goods as they are shelved, giving managers vital feedback on completion times. UPS uses sensors to study and improve the way employees stack boxes.

In an office setting, wearables can monitor how employees interact with one another and how the space around them influences interactions.

Boston-based start-up Humanyze is doing just this. It has designed sociometric badges containing sensors that record movement and posture. Tone of voice can also be recorded, and badges can detect, through infrared, when other employees are close by.

From the data collected, Humanyze says it can pinpoint which interactions lead to successful outcomes, like a closed business deal.

Bank of America tried sociometric badges and saw a 10 percent increase in productivity after it acted on the data collected. Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass., completely revamped its cafeteria after data from sociometric badges showed that interaction with colleagues stimulated higher productivity, but workers were eating at their desk during lunch and missing a key opportunity to socialize.

“Wearables are helping companies have a much more fine grained understanding of how their teams work and which spaces are not only the most utilized, but the most impactful,” says Michelle Bradbury, chief product officer at Humanyze.

“Imagine if you have a customer service team that uses a small conference space for 15 minutes a day to get a quick break with their co-workers – these team members have a higher call volume with more favorable customer feedback.

“With just raw utility numbers, this space may look like a good candidate for optimization. However, with deeper communications data correlated with KPI drivers, we can now understand that this space may be crucial to team performance and needs to be preserved,” Bradbury says.

You don’t have to be wearing a sensor in order to generate valuable information about yourself. The chair and desk in your cubicle can do the same thing.

Herman Miller, the Michigan-based manufacturer of office furniture, equipment, and home furnishings, has been using sensor technology in its products for years. The data helps clients understand how workspace is utilized. The company has recently introduced a new app called Passport which can communicate up-to-the-minute data from sensors to smartphones, and, by early next year, to Apple’s smartwatch.

This kind of real-time connectivity is opening the door to a new generation of smart office products that can communicate with us and each other.

Herman Miller’s height-adjustable T2 smart desk can be connected to and controlled by a smartphone. The desk responds to the user’s personal profile and even pings them via their phone when it’s time to get up and stretch their legs.

“We see that IoT solutions are increasingly creating connected work environments,” says Ryan Anderson, director of product and portfolio strategy at Herman Miller. “The biggest growth in these solutions in recent years has been associated with building systems—connected security and energy management—but we believe that future solutions will be more closely associated with improving the daily work experience for people in the workplace.”

Competitor Steelcase is developing embedded sensor technology for furniture that can learn personal preferences over time. In the future, it’s not hard to imagine office furniture that can communicate from one room to another, adapting to your specific requirements as you walk around your office building.

"For a long time we have predicted that technology would no longer simply be something we would carry around with us or would have on our desks; it would be in the environment,” said Steelcase CEO Jim Keane in a recent interview with Wired.

And it won’t be long before your office chair knows your heart rate and stress levels and can play you some soothing music. Last year, at the NeoCon fair in Chicago, Steelcase revealed a new smart chair along those same lines.

But is all this connectivity a positive thing? We should certainly tread with care.

“Allowing technology to become too intrusive in the workplace can lower employee morale,” says Aaron Graf, a Wisconsin-based attorney specializing in labor and employment law.

“Even those employees of younger generations that are used to their lives being inundated with technology may find it rather creepy to have their employer track their fitness and health or being able to know their location at all times.”

Clearly, the biggest concerns are around privacy, and employers who aren’t transparent about when and what kinds of data they collect could be in for some major blowback.

Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph in London got into hot water when it installed sensors underneath desks and chairs in its newsroom. The sensors, made by British company OccupEye, were supposed to monitor energy efficiency, but journalists were incensed by what they perceived as an invasion of privacy. The Daily Telegraph was forced to remove the devices the very next day.

And businesses that use technologies that collect employee data open themselves up to more responsibility and a new breed of lawsuit. It’s easy to see how a disgruntled employee might claim discrimination based on their employer’s knowledge of personal data collected from a wearable, for instance.

“If companies thought it was hard to treat everyone equally before, they will find it exceptionally difficult if they permeate the workplace with tracking devices and monitoring,” concludes Graf. 

Image from Pexels (CC0)

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About the Author

Nancy Pardo

Nancy Pardo is a UK-based writer and editor who began her career as a journalist before switching to the high-tech industry where she's remained for the past 10 years. Nancy has written for several top business publications in the Middle East and United States and specializes in technology, engineering, and manufacturing trends.