The Internet of Things in the office and HR

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How is technology such as the Internet of Things changing the workplace environment, and is there a danger it will go too far?

Anyone who’s ever watched Minority Report will have etched into their memory the gruesome scene where Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton undergoes an illegal eye transplant in a dodgy, black market surgery.

The year is 2054 and optical recognition systems – where sensors scan human irises and identify individuals at multiple points as they go about their days (hence the extreme lengths to which fugitive Anderton must resort) – are all-pervasive.

It’s a reality where driverless cars, voice-controlled homes and predictive crime units are the norm; all of which felt fantastical in 2002 when the film aired.

But it seems Spielberg was actually modest in his predictions. We’re still 36 years from the director’s alternate world, and facial recognition, iris scanning and connected buildings have already arrived. Google Home allows people to control lighting and lock doors through voice activation. Samsung’s recent smartphone offerings are equipped with iris scanner and facial recognition technology that can be used to unlock the device. Amazon is developing a smart fridge that can detect when it is low on food and automatically reorder products. And this is just the start.

These technologies all fall under the banner of the Internet of Things (IoT), or ‘the third wave of the internet’. It’s a term – first coined by Kevin Ashton back in 1999 (long before the technology actually caught up with the phrase) – that refers to physical connected devices collecting and sharing data in a connected environment.

As the above examples show, IoT is widespread in the home and consumer world. The business world, specifically the workplace, has come a little late to the party. But it is now starting to get in on the action.

“The work environment has moved from being functional to being a core part of culture and how people work. So rather than an office just being about how many desks we have, it needs to be about flexibility, collaboration and personalisation,” says Kirstin Furber, chief people officer at ClearScore.

And this means bringing all the elements of employees, architecture, productivity and the workspace together – something that organisations are beginning to wake up to, according to James Frankis, European practice area lead, consulting, at design and architecture firm Gensler.

“Real estate of offices has often focused on cost savings, on saving £x per square foot,” he says. “But when you improve employee engagement and thereby productivity, you can save a lot more. [Otherwise] you’ll be eaten for breakfast by the major tech firms who are creating environments employees enjoy and want to come to work at.”

So how can IoT be used to enhance the employee experience? For Frankis, the most interesting aspect is the “microstuff” where employees have the ability to personally control their own workspaces. Augmented workplace environments can learn the preferences and adapt to suit the needs of individual employees, or allow individuals to manage separate areas of the workplace through an app on their phones.

“Often employees work in offices where they can’t open windows or change the air con – it might sound basic but personalising this through technology and giving employees control over the part of the building they are in via IoT sensors is weirdly freeing and plays a part in wellbeing,” says Frankis.

Another application is that showcased by IT services company Tieto and its new Finnish HQ, built two years ago. The HR and the digital team collaborated to create a smart office that tracks data on both the building and the employees within it.

The company’s ambition to “create an activity-based environment and an open source culture that is non-hierarchical, transparent and encourages collaboration” brought challenges that IoT technology was perfectly placed to overcome.

“Managers and employees raised concerns that with the open source culture meaning that you choose where you want to work when you arrive in the building each day, they wouldn’t know how to find each other when they needed to work together,” explains Katariina Kravi, EVP HR. So the firm came up with an ‘Intelligent Building’ concept, where employees have sensors on their person that show their location in real time on screens based throughout the building.

“This makes the daily office experience much smoother for employees as they can find colleagues and managers easily. But it also encourages people to meet individuals outside their usual teams and collaborate with people that aren’t the usual suspects, helping to boost innovation and productivity,” says Kravi. Furniture and meeting rooms are also equipped with sensors so employees can see if spaces are available in real time.

“We have evolved the Intelligent Building into even more of a HR concept with what we call the Empathic Building,” adds Kravi. The ‘empathic’ part works by staff providing feedback via their smartphones, computers or screens – verbally or using happy and sad indicators. Artificial intelligence then crunches the data and provides real-time feedback to HR or management on topics raised – good and bad – about the building, the company, or the work, and trends for different parts of the office.

It’s a concept Tieto is partnering on with other organisations. PopInWork – a ‘member office’ or co-working space – was the first to introduce the Empathic Building concept to Sweden.

One of the key benefits, says partner and cofounder Karin Ståhl, has been the social element. “After just the first couple of weeks, one of the first things we saw was that people feel it’s OK to approach someone they don’t know,” she says. “Being able to see someone on the screen first, click on their picture and find out their name encourages people to connect as it makes them feel less like they’re surrounded by strangers.

“The lighting and heating control and monitoring is another benefit. Say someone goes to the gym at lunch – it will make them more comfortable if they can then work in a cooler environment in the afternoon. We can also evaluate the use of each work setting and see what’s popular and what’s not and adjust the environment accordingly.”

But IoT opportunities aren’t confined to employee experience. Dan Harding, director of Sign In App, points to streamlining the clocking in and out process.

“Sign In App was developed to replace the visitor book but quickly evolved into staff clocking in and out of the office. And it’s evolving further to checking in and out of multiple office locations and even home working, so that bosses have data and information on the movement of their employees,” says Harding.

So where is workplace IoT tech likely to go in future? Global spending is predicted to reach $772.5bn this year, up 15% on last year, according to IDC. “It is happening and will happen in lots of ways,” says Harding. “So businesses need to embrace it and use it to improve how they engage their employees.”

The next leap, Ståhl believes, will be “more devices built into the human body itself to control access to premises”. “Maybe we could have a chip in our hand or thumb?” she muses.

For Frankis, there is the opportunity to go further around the element of personalisation and employee control. He sees a world where iris scanners and facial recognition technology will shift from unlocking smartphones to becoming a major feature of offices. And for much the same purposes as Spielberg predicted.

“With perceived rises in terrorist attacks in workplaces, I think we will see iris scan and facial recognition security measures come into play in big office blocks,” he says. “These will be able to better protect employees and, being invisible security measures, will again create a nicer employee experience than more traditional security measures.”

He adds: “It’s that side of Minority Report that is going to be real.”

This piece featured in our recent Futureproofing versus present practicalities technology supplement. Read the full supplement here

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