The Internet of Things (IoT) is an exciting concept, a future where "billions of things are talking to each other," as technology consulting company SAP describes it. We’ve seen gadgets and domestic appliances connect to the Internet and ping your smartphone with info, but it’s becoming more clear that these toys are a prelude to a vastly connected world. And yet, we spend most of our day at work. Here’s how technologists think the world of IoT will change the workplace—and how it’s already changing how we do business today.
First, let go of that image of devices and gadgets chatting amiably. The IoT world will have so much data coming in from so many sources that the challenge will be in making any sense of it at all. As technology author Anthony D. Williams posted in 2011, "Virtually every animate and inanimate object on Earth could be generating and transmitting data, including our homes, our cars, our natural and man-made environments, and yes, even our bodies."
Related: HR Meets Data: How Your Boss Will Monitor You To Create The Quantified Workplace
So how do we make sense of that data? Algorithms. The math magic of specialized algorithms point out trends in the data that lead to conclusions.
Think of what happens in a workplace every day: People enter buildings, get coffee, casually chat, hold meetings, and leave at the end of the day. That’s a ton of activity. Hidden inside that volume of actions are patterns and lessons to take. Enterprise IoT tech company Enlighted has built a solution for how to track that activity. Their trick: Put sensors in the lights.
Enlighted offers to replace an office’s inefficient traditional lighting with fleets of LED lights. In each of those lights is a sensor cluster that maps activity across the entire office. Enlighted’s software captures motion information on a simple schematic view of the floor that tracks motion across every inch a company owns—every inch that’s lit up by Enlighted’s lights—and companies can make informed decisions about the space they’re renting.
"It’s really about helping people understand exactly how their space is being utilized. We can literally tell you how every square foot is occupied every second of every day," says Enlighted CEO Joe Costello.
The simplest use for Enlighted’s sensor lights is to turn off lights where people aren’t. Do the same with environmental HVAC controls, and companies save money by not lighting or climate-controlling unused spaces. That could even be extended to telling cleaning crews not to touch rooms that haven’t had anyone go in them for days. Those savings alone are attractive—but the sensors have more to tell.The more nuanced applications of the light-mounted sensors come when you analyze the days and days of motion data across entire buildings.
First, the sensors are sharp enough to pick up activity and heat signatures but don’t have image cameras, so people’s faces aren’t being monitored or stored. But tracking employee movement at this scale lets companies analyze how space is being used. Are the large conference rooms only being used by a few people? Break it up into several smaller conference rooms. Where do people move most? Foot traffic patterns can lend insight on how to restructure the office so interdependent departments can be moved closer together.
The data is the key here. Before, space usage data was manually gathered by folks walking around company floorspace with clipboards and counting bodies. Now, companies can see how their space is being used.
"At one company, there was this huge debate about a conference room. The founder said they needed more big conference rooms. We had data for the day on two big conference rooms in particular on the floor we were looking at: One was highly occupied and utilized, while the other conference room was terrible, the utilization was high and only a few people went in every time, so 75% of the conference room was unused," says Costello. "That’s it! That’s exactly what we’re trying to say."
It’s not just white-collar cubicle farms that could benefit from Enlighted’s data. Retail makes plenty of informed decisions based on customer movement patterns. Retail clients expressed interest in advanced sensors with bluetooth modules that can track a single customer’s travel through the store via its iBeacon. But track employees too, and retail outlets can quantify the value of customer engagement. How long was the customer in the store before they were approached? Did it increase their time in the store? Did they make a larger purchase?
Hooking up workplaces and environments to the world of IoT is often as easy as wiring a building up with IT cabling, says Justin Lee, COO and cofounder of real estate firm TheSquareFoot. So long as a workplace can be hooked up to the Internet, it can usually be effectively outfitted with an IoT system—i.e., sensors that generate data talking to each other and sending that data somewhere. Cost to outfit a workplace ramps up as the workforce increases in size, and while IoT solutions are becoming more common for smaller businesses, IoT solutions for large corporations over 1,000 people are not nearly as commercialized or streamlined yet, says Lee. But we're not yet at a place where real estate understands how to prepare an IoT-ready workplace.
"A lot of this is still very very nascent on the commercial tenant side, playing more of a role in the decision-making process of younger companies. Most commercial real-estate building landlords are just now starting to barely scratch the surface of offering physical setups for IoT," says Lee. "We're a little ways away from determining more than basic connectivity."
All those sensors can track something else unexpected: earthquakes. One Enlighted client wired two of its Bay Area buildings up with Enlighted’s sensors. All of the first building’s motion sensors were tripped at once; minutes later, all of the second building’s sensors tripped too. If someone up top was paying attention, they could actually see the earthquake hitting the first building and, since earthquakes move at the speed of sound, that second building could get a few minutes’ head start to prepare.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that industrial occupations will benefit greatly from IoT integration. Dangerous situations are the norm for factories and plants, where workers live and die by monitoring highly stressed machines. Really, coal miners were the first to embrace IoT by using canaries as sensors to tell when an area became unsafe, jokes VP and global innovation evangelist at SAP Timo Elliott. The black humor belies the high stakes of industrial work, where inattention could maim or kill.
"In the industrial world, there’s a need for local control and a high level of security. The processes that we control are dangerous and need to be secure," says Bruce Calder, chief tech officer at Honeywell. While Honeywell is best known for its iconic home thermostats, they’ve made industrial tech for years.
In many factories and plants, the only place with a complete picture of what’s happening everywhere is in the control room where all the information feeds in. Thus, whoever’s in the control room is the only one with the knowledge to take action. But by feeding that information into the cloud, anyone with a smart device can see that information all over the factory—and by running analytics on that data up in the cloud in real time, trends and conclusions can be sent to those smart devices as well. That information isn’t limited to technicians zooming around the factory floor: Offsite managers and supervisors can monitor progress and remote experts can be consulted.
"As you really make data more accessible at the plant, you make a huge change in the workplace culture," says Calder. "As you get access to more data, understand what it’s doing, and use it to make better decisions, you make the plant run better and safer. Then you can combine it with other data, like processing, production, weather, and personnel data."
One particular upcoming Honeywell product, the Orion console, is an IoT-capable console meant to solve the problem above by ingesting data and piping it up to the cloud. But it also uses that data to make informed decisions about the health of the plant. In the future, the Orion’s machine learning will learn what is normal and abnormal at the plant, and start to make suggestions to the console operator about possible abnormal conditions. For now, the Orion stems the cascading flood of alarms typical to consoles, and isolates the critical alarm that indicates the root cause of the problems, says Calder.
Modernizing industrial monitoring equipment is a must if industrial employers want to attract millennials, says Calder. Switching to large screens and intelligent systems isn’t just flashy and attractive—it’s a familiar interface to those who use touch screens everyday. Millennials will value being able to immediately contribute via touch and swipe technology, he says. Those interfaces are also more effective, says Calder. If millennials are going to take over for a generation of retiring engineers, they’re going to need to catch up on the 20 years of experience typical engineers are expected to have. Smarter consoles can help.
And thanks to a consumer industry of smartphones and tablets, industrial IoT can benefit from standardization. Instead of proprietary measuring devices that need extensive configuring, just grab an iPhone, download an app, and connect to a network, and you’ll be able to configure the device from anywhere. There will always be specific cases that need proprietary devices, of course, but the key is reducing costs as much as possible to make plants more accessible and efficient.
"One of the biggest barriers to installing new devices is always a cost to actually wire them in. You have to install the device, run wires to a panel somewhere into the control system, and configure it. The wiring alone can dwarf the cost of buying it and the sensor," says Calder. "You eliminate so many of these costs with IoT technology and its extensive wireless infrastructure."
It should be clear by now that IoT in the workplace is more than just Nest thermostats in every corner of the office. Take an algorithm, sift through data, and you can find amazing patterns. But there’s a future to all this data. It’s not about finding more fascinating data, it’s about drawing ever-more fascinating conclusions with mundane data.
"I love this equation where innovation is equal to creativity plus execution," says Sam Yen, chief design officer at enterprise tech and software giant SAP. "You think about using computers to solve problems faster and faster. The data actually leads you not to solving the same old problems efficiently; thinking creatively leads you not to problem solving but problem finding. The data points you to where the real need is."
While SAP also has its own suite of products, it also consults with companies to spitball which tech applications could kickstart their operations into higher gear. Unsurprisingly, a lot of their forward-thinking consulting conversations are about IoT.
Take the simplest IoT example about collecting sensor data from afar and presenting it to the right worker. Field technicians can benefit from getting all kinds of data right before their eyes. Instead of early adopters looking at Twitter updates on their Google Glasses, think about professionals with augmented glassware in the warehouse or out in the field getting real-time information or schematics. With these kinds of wearables that SAP is developing, "out in the field" won’t be as remote with a constant flow of information and communication.
Perhaps most important to the future of IoT in the workplace is rethinking the workplace. Thanks to the Internet, more work can be done remotely. People can get work done at home and during their commute. More and more, the "workplace" is everywhere around you, and we’re seeing a blend of personal life and the work environment. This won’t replace the "workplace" where people get together and collaborate, says SAP’s VP of user experience and design John Hack, but why not choose your own "workspace" for non-collaborative work?
"There are advantages to people getting together and working on projects together, ideating, and testing various different aspects of creative collaboration. But there is also a lot of routine work and individual contribution work that doesn’t require collaboration and really could be done anywhere," says Hack. "We see the flexible workspace as more important than any kind of workplace."
The challenge is to connect everything without losing human interaction—that old chestnut of having people around the table but they’re all staring at their smartphones. Yen’s task as a designer is to avoid that isolation and humanize technology, using it as a way to get teams together and preserve the human feeling of teamwork, even if they’re not physically together.
On the other hand, a connected world will bring wholly new jobs, says Hack. Take the recent hurricane in Mexico, which fortunately didn’t claim lives, but humanitarian efforts will still need to get supplies to people in remote areas. That’s where IoT logistics comes in: fleets of drones, supplies, and geographical considerations of getting from point A to point B.
"How do you command, control, and deliver all this effectively? There will be new jobs, new tasks, and new skills required in order to achieve the next levels of economic activity in an IOT world," says Hack.
IoT is already filtering into logistics support in another way with so-called "cognitive outsourcing"—aka, letting computers do the heavy thinking for us. Think about IBM’s Watson, says Hack, a resource of computing power that sifts through mountains of data to present conclusions by citing patterns that most humans can’t discern—or at least, can’t discern quickly. Cognitive outsourcing will speed up work (so long as we trust our algorithms) by speeding up not just the flow of information, but the flow of conclusions.
One future development may be the most anticipated funeral since the death of Clippy: killing PowerPoints. Hack envisions the board room of the future to simply broadcast the raw flow of data on whiteboards and have supporting algorithms help presenters discuss the company’s performance in real-time.
"The bottleneck from that perspective is, what do you do with all that data being generated? How do you get the signal from the noise? How do you make real-time decisions and automate those real-time decisions?" says Yen.
The IoT mantra is "more data, more conclusions," but the bottom line for IoT’s future in the workplace is "from conclusions, make decisions that refine the work we do."