How to Design an Intelligent Office

For many – particularly millennials – the smart-home experience elevates their workplace expectations. The talent organizations seek to attract and retain sees a truly connected, automated and interactive work experience as the standard, and they want it. Employers, for their part, need to better connect with their employees – remote employees included – drive productivity and increase satisfaction. Organizations with a sophisticated smart-office program may realize operational benefits as well, in areas such as energy savings and building maintenance.

You may have read about The Edge in Amsterdam, purportedly the world’s most connected building, integrating numerous smart technologies to create adaptable and intelligent workspaces. It stands as the ideal. The reality, however, is that most workplaces lag far behind; organizations are just now asking, “Where do I begin?”

The market is flooded with buzzwords like ‘IoT’, ‘sensors’ and ‘live utilization’, but there’s little context provided about how these technologies fit into a larger ecosystem or how to build a business case for them.

First, a few relevant statistics to keep in mind as you read and begin thinking about that business case:

– 90% of our lives are spent indoors

– Over 75% of people work in a commercial facility (over half in an office setting)

– Roughly 50% of assigned offices are underutilized

– 50% of seats in meeting rooms (for 8+) go unused

– Up to 40% of scheduled meetings are no shows/ghost meetings

– Over 30% of meetings are impromptu

– Approximately 30 minutes/week/employee are spent trying to locate available meeting rooms

– Approximately 40 minutes/week/employee are spent in corporate cafeteria wait lines.

The Status Quo

The current workplace status quo features little in the way of CRE & FM technology. Generally, that technology is limited to AutoCAD, with employee locations and estimated headcounts tracked on PDF drawings or excel spreadsheets. There is little or no point-in-time utilization data, thwarting any occupancy planning efforts, and certainly no IoT/connected devices or applications.

The employee experience suffers as well, as they typically book conference rooms on a static platform, such as Outlook. Moreover, there’s virtually no integrated visibility into building operation and mechanical systems; BMS is siloed, offering very little in the way of actionable insights – data that could lead to higher facility efficiencies, increased employee productivity or opportunity cost savings. A lack of visualization capabilities also forces facilities managers into a perpetually reactive position.

Moving to WP 2.0: The Connected Office

A connected office features a Space Management point solution or an IWMS as baseline CRE & FM technology. Additionally, employees access an integrated reservation system through a mobile app, allowing them to see room locations and features and to know the availability of each room at a given time. These mobile-enabled reservation apps, along with a companion tablet conference room displays, are today’s most in-demand smart-office technologies. A number of these apps also include some basic level of service request functionality (including QR code scanning) to report lighting outages, hand towel and printer/toner refill requests, etc.

Though at this stage there are no IoT/connected devices or applications (e.g. furniture sensors, lighting beacons) we are presuming that facilities managers are collecting space utilization data through existing door access badges which will include employee departmental allocations, enabling more advanced workplace management and ultimately driving better occupancy planning decisions. Facilities or Human Resources managers might also consider collecting more advanced RFID and voice detection/social sensing badge data if additional workplace behavioral patterns are so desired.

Another, more advanced, possibility includes pairing badge data with CCTV, which not only provides traffic counts but is also capable of collecting data on the demographics (male/female, approximate age) and even the mood or emotion of both employees and visitors, all in the context of enabling better insight.

These same resource reservation technologies can be applied to virtually any resource – perhaps a portable media cart, an elliptical machine, meditation room, a huddle space or a desk. The data collected on utilization, for example, may show that the sales team doesn’t require offices or desks on a full-time basis due to their travel schedules. That office or desk can be allocated more efficiently – perhaps through hoteling – freeing underutilized space for expansion. Taking a deeper dive, the employee resource search data will also convey user preferences and/or peak utilization trends based time of day, location, amenities or available technologies in the room. This type of data is incredibly valuable when considering space alterations or redesigns.

At this level, the sole focus is on what’s happening in the workspace. BMS is still siloed and capabilities such as utilization-based temperature and lighting control are still an aspiration. Most organizations need to be at this Connected Office stage now, or at the least set it as their new starting point.

Though the ‘Connected Office’ is a significant incremental step up from the current status-quo – static and siloed CRE & FM technologies and reactive workplace management- a large percentage of the data in the facility sits unused, often leading to risky occupancy planning decisions. Also unused is a treasure trove of data accessible through more advanced workplace IoT technology and tools.

Moving to WP 3.0: The Smart Office

It’s at the next level, the ‘Smart Office’ stage, where the true promise of IoT to improve data quality, generate a higher level of actionable insight and enhance the employee experience emerges.

In a ‘Smart Office’, organizations add lighting beacons and/or furniture sensors; a smart desk, for example, equipped with an embedded sensor can recognize an employee’s cell phone (via mobile app), and allow users to load their sit/stand preferences, ultimately tracking desk level utilization. IT network detection can also be used to track utilization, but has some limitations. The addition of lighting beacons will enable wayfinding and allow employees to pinpoint individuals’ locations in an open office. Although HR departments typically offer this as ‘optional, or opt-in only,’ presence-detection capability is considered critical, given that the number one complaint in free-address environments is the inability to locate team members.

It’s important to say here that the business rationale for the Smart Office’s higher-level IoT infrastructure is not its ability to track employees. Instead, the business case is grounded in improving the employee experience and their productivity, making resources (desks, offices, conference rooms, etc.) available and reserve-able through sensor validation. In just one specific example – perhaps obscure but costly in terms of employee productivity and satisfaction – mobile-enabled queue management technology has proven to virtually eliminate employee cafeteria wait-times. Think that’s not important? Statistics show that employees at organizations with cafeterias spend up to 40-minutes/week/employee waiting in line! Multiply that over hundreds of employees.

The bottom-line is that advanced, integrated ‘Smart Office’ IoT technologies and tools facilitate forward-thinking, proactive workplace management and strategic occupancy planning. Trends are improving customer/employee-facing areas, like those discussed above, and feeding functional areas throughout the organization, including preventative maintenance, visitor management, and mailroom management.

At this ‘Smart Office’ stage, organizations are not yet tightly focused on core building operational systems. Facilities managers are still likely operating building management systems, like lighting and HVAC, in a siloed fashion.

And while organizations progressing from the ‘Connected’ to ‘Smart’ office phase are certainly more proactive in their planning and decision-making, and while their employees’ experience is improving dramatically, the third phase, the ‘Intelligent Office’, introduces next-level automation, integration, and intelligence into the workplace.

Moving to Cognition: The Intelligent Office

It’s in the ‘Intelligent Office’ where IoT in the workplace truly takes root, integrating core operational systems and Building Management Systems (BMS) into an organization’s smart office strategy.

In ‘Connected’ and ‘Smart’ offices, BMS systems were still siloed; however, in this third phase, an Intelligent Building Platform (IBP) integrates multiple systems and data sources with read-write functionality. HVAC, lighting, electrical, solar, weather station, utility meters, fire life safety, elevators, badge, CCTV, smart furniture or other occupancy sensors, copiers/printers, windows/shades, rack management, kitchen appliances, resource scheduler, and more can be connected to the IBP Hub. These integrated command and control centers can also extend functionality to a mobile device, enabling tenants to adjust things like temperature and lighting. But perhaps the systems’ most valuable feature is its ability to conduct automated protocols based on the data it receives.

In the ‘Intelligent Office,’ the IoT is managing energy. For instance, if no sensor activity is detected on a floor of a building over the past two hours, or if the level of sensor activity doesn’t meet a pre-determined threshold, there’s no reason to maintain a temperature of 72 degrees or to keep (all) the lights on. Instead, the IBP automatically directs heating/cooling and electrical power to areas with activity.

In a more sophisticated temperature-related example, the IBP utilizes sensors to detect how many people are occupying an open-plan space. Each occupant, using a mobile app, is able to provide real-time feedback regarding the space’s temperature, whether it’s too warm or too cool. The IBP monitors that feedback and if a pre-defined threshold is met (say, 25% of occupants at one point agree that the space is too cool), it executes a protocol to adjust the temperature or air handling units accordingly. No work order or human intervention needed – integration yields actionable insights, which drive an automated response.

The same principle applies to equipment maintenance. The IBP provides facilities managers (FM) with advanced visibility into equipment performance. Through those insights, FMs can predict and prevent equipment failure, often through automation protocols based on constant readings/performance data.

Building automation capabilities have never been more sophisticated. Most IBP’s are capable of some level of machine learning on a standalone basis. Others may require integration to a third-party application like IBM Watson for additional levels of insight.

A structured approach to digital workplace transformation

In this Insight article, we’ve limited our analysis of workplace technologies to the CRE and FM world. Of course, countless other emerging connected technologies, from interactive whiteboards to AI-enabled virtual assistants, continue to fundamentally transform the way we work.

The workplace evolution will continue at a pace and scale virtually impossible to predict. Without a systematic, incremental, and programmed approach to their own workplace evolution organizations run the risk of chasing the latest technology for technology’s sake, ending up with an ad hoc collection of poorly utilized, non-integrated and perhaps superfluous tools and technologies. What we’ve begun to do in this blog series is provide CRE and FM with program standards, definitions, and frameworks that can form the foundation of a digital workplace transformation strategy moving forward.


DustyDusty Duistermars – Senior Managing Director (CRE Enterprise Optimization) – Through a diverse array of Corporate Real Estate Transaction, Site Selection, Incentives, Workplace and Technology Advisory experiences, Dusty Duistermars has been focused on the diverse needs of corporate occupiers for nearly 15 years.

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