The proliferation of more advanced technology means the way people do business is ever-changing. Developments such as the internet of things (IoT) present a variety of diverse opportunities across many industries, remaking the modern workplace and streamlining its operations.
This shift is evident in the trend toward creating the so-called smart office — also known as the responsive or digital workplace — in which technology is used to make the physical work environment intelligent and adaptable to company workflows.
"'Responsive' means that every aspect of the workplace campus, from collaborative tools to the built space, is able to respond to an individual's needs and context," Campbell Hyers, president of integrated solutions group of technology and media company Intersection, told Business News Daily. "The opportunity in workplace campus design is to build amenities that improve both experience and the bottom line."
What does a smart office do?
The idea behind the responsive workplace is to unify operations under one system and empower that system with machine-learning capabilities. By doing so, businesses can get more out of their employees while keeping them happier, as well as analyze a vast amount of data to make more informed business decisions.
"A smart office will be a tech-heavy office that will leverage technology to automate routine and everyday tasks to really optimize how we do work," said Luka Birsa, co-founder and chief technical officer of Visionect, a digital-signage company. "Smart offices will boost productivity by freeing up employee time to do real work — the work technology can't do."
Here are just a few examples of what a smart office might include:
- Internet of things: "IoT will definitely be involved in the smart office," said Lou Reinisch, associate provost at the New York Institute of Technology. "Smart lights, thermostats, virtual reality cameras, virtual reality speakers, etc. are all instrumental to the smart office."
- Machine learning: "Machine intelligence is also showing up in fields like knowledge and management," Hyers said. "Think about how powerful it is for a computer to be able to tell you the best person to speak with about a particular feature in your company's product suite. The new workplace should be like a gym that has all of the equipment that you could never have at home, but instead of exercise, the workplace makes you faster, stronger and smarter."
- Interconnectivity and control: "We also use a lot of smart devices — smart switches, dimmers, relays — to control everything in our school and office, from light to power consumption," Julien Cyr, chief engineer at the San Francisco-based Holberton School. "We have a lot of sensors, too — UV, temperature, lux — and all of the automation systems [are] connected to our apps, like Slack, so we can order a coffee from a Slack Channel, as well as dim the light of a specific desk!"
By incorporating these and other technologies, companies can reduce their energy consumption, improve employee morale and boost productivity. However, when building a smart office, it is important to remember that not every business's needs are the same.
"The smart office is up to date with the available technology best suited for [a particular industry]," said Ervis Zeqo, business development manager and IT security consultant at eMazzanti Technologies. "That might be IoT for a manufacturer, VR for a design firm or AI for a big data company. What is smart for one may not be for another, and it's always changing."
There is also a high bar for adoption; all of the technology required to build a truly smart office is expensive. Moreover, there aren't a lot of test cases in the market right now, so many companies might be hesitant to make the initial investment required to implement a responsive workplace program without the assurance that it will really provide a return.
"The major obstacle is to convince companies that the improved productivity is worth the initial investment to build the smart office," Reinisch said. "Many companies tend to base decisions on 'benchmarking.' Since this sort of office is not common, it will not be in any of the benchmark comparisons. Offices like this will only be built in companies with creative employees and where the bosses trust the creative employees to know what the employees need."
An office without walls
For some, the responsive workplace offers an opportunity to extend the office far beyond its walls and enable more complete remote collaboration. While some focus primarily on harnessing digital tools to remake the physical office, others see technology as capable of severing the ties that bind employees to any one locale.
"The smartest office may be no office at all," said Mike Finley, a machine learning expert at AnswerRocket, an analytics company. "With people working where they want to be, productivity and morale improve, while costs fall. The outdated idea of 'eyes on' supervision can be replaced by real measurements of progress, in real time, by tools that connect business processes to profits. [Augmented reality] meeting spaces are already taking shape and enabling a new level of collaboration."
The potential for the responsive workplace to dissolve the traditional boundaries of the office could have an immense impact on employees' attitudes and the quality of the work they produce.
"Consider that the growing body of research into productivity and innovation indicates that remote work, co-working spaces and outside-of-the-cubicle work cultures have a profoundly positive impact on both morale and caliber of work," said Gabe Fenigsohn, research manager at digital creative team Cardwell Beach.
A Harvard Business Review analysis demonstrated that when workers are granted a degree of autonomy by their employers, they tend to feel their work is more meaningful. However, by incorporating smart office technology, employers don't have to trade accountability for worker freedom. A marriage of technology and flexibility allows workers the space they need to produce at their best level without undermining supervision for employers.
"A smart office … should be tailored to answer their needs and should be able to grow with the employees and companies, learn from them and then give them suggestions on their work," Birsa said. "Smart office tech doesn't need to be earth-shattering. What it will need to do is fit company workflows as seamlessly as possible and improve the way people work, without taking time out of their workday to learn the ropes."