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Smartphones, smartwatches... 'smart' offices?

18 November 2016. Published by Sophie Tuson, Senior Associate

Robot security guards, coffee machines that remember how you like your cappuccino, and smartphone apps which enable employees to control heating and lighting at the touch of a button. Welcome to the brave new world of the ‘smart’ office.

The Edge, Deloitte's headquarters in Amsterdam, opened in 2015 and was immediately hailed the world's "smartest" office. But what exactly is a smart office?

Smart offices use the Internet of Things (IoT), a system of smart devices communicating with each other over Wi-Fi, to revolutionise the modern workspace. The result? More intelligent and interconnected offices than ever before. And with leading tech researcher Gartner estimating that there'll be 21bn "connected things" by 2020, the smart office could be set to take over.

But whilst smart offices might offer real benefits to businesses and the employees who occupy them, what are the risks associated with this level of interconnectivity in the workplace? And is it even smart to have an office at all considering the increasing trend for remote working?

Intelligent workplaces

On one level, smart offices are about freedom and autonomy - giving employees flexibility in how they use their workspace whilst, at the same time, bringing some of the comforts and perks of working remotely back into the office environment.

Localised climate control is just one of those perks. Squabbling over the "optimum" office temperature may be a thing of the past. Italian Architect, Carlo Ratti, has designed an office in Turin which enables workers to set their desired temperature using a smartphone app. Sensors in the ceiling are then activated by human presence and send instructions to heating, lighting and cooling systems creating personalised 'thermal bubbles' that follow individuals around the office.

With the increasing trend for "hot-desking", smart technology enables workers to reserve desks, book meeting rooms and open lockers using an app. A "touch in and out" system, similar to using a contactless credit card, can help hot-deskers who feel alienated by the loss of a permanent desk reclaim ownership of their working space.

Add to this: coffee machines that know when they're running low on milk and automatically order more; and video conferencing robots (imagine a segway with an iPad on top) which enable remote workers to have a more physical presence in the office ... and it's all starting to look pretty cool.

But perhaps the most convincing argument for IoT in the workplace is the huge potential for energy saving - experts predict this could be around 20 - 50%. This is significant considering that commercial buildings currently account for 40% of the world's electricity consumption. The Edge has an LED lighting system integrated with 30,000 sensors which enables it to continuously measure human occupancy and movement and to automatically adjust heating and lighting accordingly - turning meeting rooms to "standby" when they aren't being used.

Does this all come at a price?

Architects have warned that the use of smart technology represents a radical and "potentially sinister" shift in architectural practice with architects becoming increasingly focused on the benefits of intelligent workspaces whilst overlooking the dangers.

Whilst much of the data collected by smart devices is done so anonymously, there remains a concern about how this data could ultimately be used. Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph's attempt to install desk sensors (called OccupEye) to measure occupancy and save energy, was aborted after just one day after the paper was criticised for operating a system of surveillance on its own employees.

In the context of unprecedented levels of cyber-crime, there also exists a risk that the increasingly sensitive data collected by smart devices could fall into the wrong hands. The risk of a data breach will be even more acutely felt by businesses when the General Data Protection Regulation comes into force in May 2018 bringing with it tougher new sanctions of up to €20m or 4% of worldwide turnover. Arguably for some businesses this risk, and the cost of implementing the required security measures to prevent a data breach, may prove too high.

The future of the smart office

What's clear is that the use of smart technology in the workplace needs to be palatable for employees with the risks being measured against any perceived gains. To do just this, the firm behind The Edge is consulting employees at an early stage; with a new London HQ set to be launched, they are using virtual reality headsets to "show" prospective office users what their workspace might look like and garner feedback.

So, how rosy is the future looking for the smart office? Whilst robots and clever coffee machines might sound fun, what seems likely is that businesses that do decide to invest in smart technology in the workplace will do so principally where it will impact efficiency, cost reduction and employee comfort.

Critics of the office have speculated that it has had its heyday and is now a dying breed, but perhaps they are wrong. The office isn't dying, it's evolving and the Internet of Things is making it happen.