The word ‘smart’ has gained increasing prominence in the last few years as a way to describe spaces which feature a high level of integration with modern digital technologies, sensors and responsive systems. Most commonly, we see this in the description of ‘smart homes’, realising new possibilities for what a home can offer to its occupants in terms of comfort, enjoyment and security. But this is not the only application for these technologies, and homes are not the only spaces where people spend their time. Here at Global EMS we find it both useful and important to understand current technological developments and think about how these might inform the solutions we offer, even if indirectly; so, in this article we are going to explore precisely what is meant by a ‘smart office’, what this might look like, and why it is a technological trend worth paying attention to.
Centralized Control and Decentralized Access
The most common ideas of what a ‘smart’ building looks like involve temperature and lighting. They include features which have made significant progress in domestic buildings thanks to more readily available ‘smart’ thermostats and networked, electric lights. These offer a combination of automation, customization and convenience only possible through their use, and offer a helpful way of thinking about ‘smart’ trends in general. Especially since they are increasingly appearing in office spaces too, where they find new uses and limitations in a sophisticated working environment.
Giving centralized control of temperature and light levels, smart thermostats and lights at the same time decentralize access to these functions. Think about how switches tend to control only the lights immediately around them: if you leave a light on in another room, you need to go into that room to change it. Likewise, temperature controls usually consist of a main thermostat setting levels for an entire heating system at once, even though you might only be spending time in some of those rooms or know that some rooms will likely get too hot or too cold compared to others.
Integrating these utilities with digital controls such as remotes, apps and access panels means that they can now be controlled from different points in the building: if you know you’re only in one room, you can turn off the lights elsewhere. Or, if you leave lights or heating on accidentally when you’re out, you can turn them off or lower them remotely from the app on your phone. This covers convenience, but what about customization and automation? Let’s look at these next.
Custom Profiles and Automation
If several people use a space, they may use it in different ways and with different preferences for what they find comfortable. When settings are controlled digitally rather than through discrete, physical controls, this means they can also be stored as preferences linked to individual profiles. In doing this, someone can instantly adapt the space to what they find most comfortable, simply by telling the system to use their favoured settings: turning on certain ceiling lights or side lamps, and heating or cooling the house to their desired temperature.
Furthermore, this process can even be automated to suit their lifestyle and how they use the space over the course of the day or week. The system can turn on lights or raise automated blinds in the morning, then dim the lights and lower the blinds again as it gets dark. Equally, there’s a strong chance they’ll want this to happen earlier on weekdays than on weekends, and customized ‘smart’ systems can account for this. This isn’t just convenient, it can make sure your environment responds to your body’s natural circadian rhythms, keeping you healthy and allowing you to focus and work more effectively. It can allow a building to respond to daily physical, mental and behavioural cycles in a sophisticated way, similar to how some phones and computers have a ‘night shift’ mode which changes their screens from blue to yellow light each evening so that the blue light doesn’t interfere with sleep.
Democratizing Office Comfort
Individual profiles work if there are a few people alternately using a space, but what do you do if there are dozens, potentially hundreds, all with their own preferences? This is where the specifics of a ‘smart office’ rather than a ‘smart house’ become more pronounced. By automating decisions over something such as temperature in different parts of an office, based on the preferences of those working there, a smart office can respond democratically to the needs of different workers, doing what’s best for the wellbeing and productivity of everyone in the office environment.
Additionally, an employee can have their preferences ‘follow’ them round the building: if they work on a different floor some days, use a ‘hotdesking’ system, or book out a conference room, the building can make sure it responds to this and maintains a comfortable environment as they, and others, move through different spaces. Not just this, but the system will adjust itself to account for influences such as occupancy and weather. For instance, if more people are in the office, less heating is needed to raise the temperature, but on a cold day more might be needed to keep everyone comfortable.
Health, Safety and Essential Systems
Of course, in some office environments, there are essential systems whose importance goes far beyond wellness and productivity, and there are other practical uses for the data produced by smart technologies by integrating with these. For instance, Offshore Drilling Rigs often use ‘person onboard’ health and safety management systems. When dealing with clients in this sector, we’ve used this data to indicate both compensation and tracking of employees for HR, Tax and Payroll purposes. Integrating with ‘time and attendance’, health and safety, and sector-specific tracking systems are just a few of many areas where smart use of data can improve automation as well as seemingly distinct functions within a business.
What are the Business Benefits of a Smart Office?
These are all interesting possibilities, but for most companies to consider the impact of new technologies, they need more concrete information on what the overall benefits might be, so we’ll look at these now. In a report from British Land in collaboration with Worktech, entitled ‘Smart Offices: a 2017 vision for the future’, some useful points were made about what office workers expect from smart offices, and what the benefits are for business leaders in adopting these emerging technologies.
The points we have mentioned so far are in line with the most popular features which employees would like to see, according to this report. We can add to this a couple of extra expectations specifically from decision-makers, who suggested: apps for booking desks and meeting rooms, seamless interaction between meeting room screens and user devices, and desk or room sensors which track usage to monitor efficiency.
These are all great features that we hope make it into many offices soon, but when many still have concerns about issues such as security (and this certainly has been an important question regarding ‘Internet of Things’ and ‘smart’ devices) and cost, the most useful part of the report is its emphasis of 6 key business benefits these technologies can bring:
- Increased productivity, creativity and innovation by tailoring and positively influencing how work is done.
- Attracting and retaining top talent in competitive sectors by improving employee experience and supporting agile ways of working.
- Improved employee health and wellbeing from adjustments to individual needs through the smart building management systems.
- Building brand values and strengthening corporate culture through the abilities of a “tailored, agile and responsive” smart office.
- Cost reduction and control by optimising space or detecting issues earlier, facilitated by the “large and continuous volumes of real-time data” on the performance and behaviour of the building and its people.
- Improved sustainability and energy efficiency from the monitoring and optimization of resources such as water and electricity, or systems such as lighting, thermal and ventilation controls, thereby reducing energy consumption and environmental impact.
Borrowing a term from British Land’s ‘Smart Buildings’ conference of the same year, we can see that the business case for smart office technology relies here on a combination of “’soft’ and ‘hard’ measures”. Or rather: “companies need to be confident that it will both improve the working lives and performance of their employees, and measurably contribute to the bottom line”.
Payroll, HR and International Assignment are sectors whose concerns similarly combine ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ measures towards the same ends. Therefore, it is worth paying attention to technological trends such as these; not just because they are likely to affect our working environment in the future (if not already), but for the way it changes how we think about issues such as employee retention, cost reductions and what clients and workers expect from an office. Hopefully, you’ve found this a useful introductory guide to a subject which, so far, has had little discussion from within the sectors we work across here at Global EMS. But it is a topic which we think is worth understanding and considering if companies such as ours are to stay up to date and continue providing great services and offerings, now and in the future.