Cris Cristina // February 28 2019

Beyond the Connected Coffee Maker: How the Smart Office Will Change the Way You Work

Smart lights? Check. Smart thermostats? Check. Smart coffee makers and vacuums? Double check. We’ve adopted all these innovations, but for the most part they’re only found in industrial applications — or as we’re more likely familiar with, the home. Yet we spend an average of eight hours a day at work*, roughly half our waking life. So when will smart device technologies start to be pervasive at the workplace, and what will they look like?

In the near term, we can certainly use some of the same tech to do the same things. For instance, not too long ago we instrumented our own office with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and smart lights to help welcome and guide guests to conference rooms. It was a fun exercise, but beacon technology didn’t quite transform the way we work. Let’s take a look at three spaces where the smart device applications will likely change the work environment in the next few years.

You’ll Be Able to Manage Your Office Environment with Your Voice

We will start to use voice in the office just like in our homes today. We’ll of course be able to manage other smart devices, like turning on the lights. In addition, we will be able to initiate conference calls, book conference rooms, look for files or specific report data, and manage action items on shared lists. Amazon is already building toward this. They recently launched an Alexa for Business project that integrates existing enterprise infrastructure and a few custom skills with off-the-shelf Alexa-enabled devices.

Automation Will Bend Infrastructure to Your Needs (Instead of the Other Way Around)

Smart devices will allow us to bend infrastructure to our needs as opposed to having to adapt to it. As for physical infrastructure, we can use artificial intelligence (AI) to configure desks, lights, shades, chairs, coffee makers, etc. to a particular layout or function based on time of day, type of activity, and even environmental factors like glare from sunlight. It can even help nudge more healthful behavior based on habit, i.e. suggest we stand, sit, or even take a break.

Automation will also be helpful in managing those challenging conference solutions, like auto-booking rooms based on number of attendees, type of attendees, and available space.

Biometrics, like facial recognition, will help hourly workers more easily and accurately track hours. For hourly and salaried employees alike, they will provide easy security management for not only buildings and other physical spaces like server rooms, but digital access control to files and secure data like personally identifiable information.

Digital Assistants Will Help You Focus On the Important Stuff

Currently, only top executives can afford an assistant. Soon digital assistance in the workplace will be more accessible. We’ll have help with tasks as “simple” as dictation transcription to more difficult ones like arranging and booking conference times. Hopefully they can help to remove the drudgery of the back and forth with participants to find that elusive slot that works across six schedules and three time zones! We’ll also find ways to augment the reception experience, from greeting and check-in. We will be able to more accurately help guests find the right places and people… and hosts to do the same.

Prototyping a Virtual Receptionist

We are currently working on a pilot project to test the use of AI-enabled facial recognition to augment our office reception.  To date, we’ve built a working prototype to manage visitor intake. Upon entering the building, the user encounters a welcome station with a scanner and a display. With the user’s consent, the system scans the entrant’s face. If it’s a recognized visitor, i.e. someone who has interacted with the system before, it presents a welcome back message with note of where their meeting is taking place. Additionally, it shows an option to map directions to the conference room location. If it’s a new visitor, it asks for standard check-in information like the visitor’s name and company. Whether it’s a new or returning visitor, check in will alert the responsible internal party via a messaging system. For an expected guest, it will message the host of the meeting. For an unexpected visitor, the system will message a generic host or set of available greeters.

As of now, it’s just a working prototype. There will be challenges to implementation. Of the many valid concerns, privacy and bias are the most salient. It’s vitally important that we address these in the design of the systems. If we can implement the technology with respect – store data locally, encrypt stored data, responsibly destroy data, and implement systematic development frameworks to minimize biases – the potential advantages are large. For the employer, there are cost savings and productivity increases. Initially there’s also bound to be recruiting/retention advantages to workplaces with useful implementations. For the employees, there are quality-of-life improvements, like better well-being and overall health. And for everyone, these efficiencies can add up to a significant reduction in the existing ecological footprint.

Have an idea you think we should implement? Want to talk more about the implications and opportunities? Let me know and stay tuned in the next few weeks for a deeper look at the implementation details of our virtual reception experiment.

Cris is a product strategist, designer, and researcher at Digitalist. If you liked this article, check out a more in depth exploration of design and machine learning in The Designer’s Guide to Machine Learning.

*U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “American Time Use Survey – 2017

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