In a smart office, beacons, mobile apps, and sensors are changing the way people work. They can determine everything from whether an employee is in the building, to where they’re located, and whether a booked conference room isn’t actually being used. And, there is much more on the horizon.

Oracle has created a lab environment to test various cloud applications to figure out new ways for people to communicate, geo locate, and handle daily tasks. Some of the cooler tech being evaluated includes hands-free, mind sensing headwear to explore how brainwave control can allow for hands-free navigation and movement of objects, as well as remote robotic control that couples robotics and gesture control for smart office tech.

A smart office will change everything. Think of how, just 10 years ago, a desktop computer was everything. Now, most employees use multiple devices daily, said Jeremy Ashley, group vice president for Oracle Applications User Experience.

“The office has just become one part of the entire story. We’re looking to see what types of trends are emerging here. One example is a trend that has emerged only because we have these devices. Everywhere I’ve been around the world, I ask, ‘what’s the very first thing you do in the morning?’ Doesn’t matter where it is, they say, ‘I pick up my phone and I read my email, my Facebook, and a selection of other things.’ This is a brand new behavior. It’s never happened before,” Ashley said.

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In coffee shops, people navigate their phones, work, and send notifications, all while they stand in line. “We call those coffee shop interactions. The integration between life and work is becoming easier,” Ashley said.

The changes add technology to people’s lives, but by doing so, actually make interactions more human again.

“People can find their own pathway. They find their own way through the technology to be able to do things in a way that is more convenient for them. It’s based much more on how a human, a person, really works in the world,” Ashley said.

At Oracle’s smart office lab, they have sections that make up the main components of any employee’s day, from arriving at work and hoteling their day to scheduling use of workspaces, to working in huddles, and working independently. And how, if you move from one space to another, having your work carry on as it did in the previous space.

“We’re interested in examining how that whole flow goes together. With the exact purpose that any task you do, the biggest enemy of usability or simplicity is the number of times you are unnecessarily disturbed,” Ashley explained. “This could be finding a Wi-Fi password or booting up a laptop. What if I can just walk in there, sit down, and basically with a flick of my thumb it carries on as it was before? Now the cloud is becoming much more of the platform than the individual device.”

“Every unnecessary step that we can remove from the process and automate is one less thing that person has to learn that isn’t core to their job,” he said. In Oracle’s lab, they try to use off-the-shelf products whenever possible, including Amazon’s Alexa for voice interface and interaction.

“We’re looking at other types of devices such as smartwatches and badges for the verification of who you are, who else is around you, and therefore what needs to happen. You don’t need to buy specialist equipment. It’s very, very accessible for any size of enterprise that wants to take it on,” Ashley said.

Current, a GE company that focuses on energy efficiency and industrial IoT and is working to help companies make work spaces more efficient, offers LED smart lights that can house sensors, cameras, microphones, vibrations, and CO2 detection.

“We call them the all-knowing lights. We can even do lighting-as-a-service if people don’t want to lay out the capital up front to do it. I like to think of it as lights that have digitization with a neural network that also happens to provide light,” said Dave Bartlett, CTO of Current.

Beacons that work in conjunction with mobile apps can help employees automatically check in when they arrive at work. “The building knows that you’ve arrived. That’s helpful to other employees wondering, ‘can I speak to so and so.’ We know they’re in the building,” Bartlett said.

Space utilization is another key component of a smart office, with sensors in seats, beacons, and heat mapping alerting companies to how space is being used. Heat mapping occurs when a sensor in a chair is heat activated and indicates whether someone is seated.

“One of the problems in the built environment today, the space we have costs so much, yet so much is under-utilized. We don’t have the data to know which desks are being occupied, which mediums are being used and which percentage of the time, and which stairwells and hallways are being used. Now, we can help to redesign the space to make it far more efficient and we can understand needs to contract or expand to get more for the money,” Bartlett said.

This includes conference room scheduling, with a combination of beacons and mobile apps that are used with geofencing to show who is in a conference room, and who is not.

“One of the big problems in productivity is needing that conference room and it’s not available. Or, if it accommodates 20 people and it’s booked for two people. There’s that problem of inefficiently matching people to the space but also people booking the room and not showing up. Having this awareness through beacons, or indoor positioning ,or awareness detection can help you understand when a conference room is really being used or when is it freed up, and when can it be rescheduled. You can use this data over time to redesign conference rooms,” Bartlett said.

Another company involved in creating components for a smart office is Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard company. Aruba’s head of vertical marketing, Alan Ni, said that the changing nature of the workplace is part of what is driving this change. Employees no longer expect to be tethered to a physical desk phone and workspace, and prefer a wireless environment.

“The first thing we’re seeing not from an IT perspective, but from a physical office perspective, is that any sort of new building that’s being built, if you talk to a lot of architects, an employee isn’t designed to go to his or her space and reside there the entire day. They’re making it a lot more flexible so he or she can go work anywhere, or collaborate with peers. Or, if he or she needs to go heads down and figure out things and build decks or content, they can go to specific focal areas which may or may not be on site for that specific user,” Ni said. The core technologies that make this happen include Wi-Fi, beacons, and indoor wayfinding to locate other employees within a building.

Redesigning work space can improve productivity and lower costs for a company, since in cities such as San Francisco the average cost for office space to house one person is between $18,000 and $25,000 annually. In London, it can go up to $30,000 per person. To reduce costs, many organizations have reduced the amount of square footage given to each employee, with open floor plans an easy way to accomplish this task, shrinking the average per-person square footage in a typical office environment from 500 square feet down to 125 square feet, said Sunil Frida, Current’s director of marketing for intelligent enterprises.

Current also works with architectural firms to help redesign office space. A recent client in the banking industry needed to redesign its layout in order to create an open environment for a 20,000 square foot space, Frida said.

“They went from old school to new school with an open desk layout and a bunch of couches and a big TV screen and telephone booths so you could go in and make calls,” Frida said.

Current used heat mapping to figure out where people were spending the most time.

“We found out the couch was very close to a warm duct so no one sat on the couch. So, they moved it, and within a week the number of people who sat on those couches went up 50%. If a manager sat there, no one sat near him. They lost 5,000 square feet because no one wanted to sit near the manager,” Frida said.

Through heat mapping, Current also discovered that whenever the manager went to lunch, within five minutes everyone else went out for lunch, too.

“It’s cool to have the manager in an open space but not a good use of space. So, we put a glass wall around the manager to give a break in the space so that people could use that space more openly,” Frida said.

Being able to anticipate what employees need is a key aspect of a smart office.

“Real-time decision-making has gone from, ‘how can we know what steps to take,’ to ‘how can we anticipate next steps?’ to ‘an event occurred, the appropriate actions have been taken, how can we build on this opportunity?’ The last scenario refers to harvesting the benefits of IoT, which undoubtedly will be at the core of any smart office of the future,” said Ulrik Pederson, chief technology officer of Targit.

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. A smart office can improve employee productivity while making the lives of employees easier, and giving them flexibility over how they choose to work.
  2. Oracle has created a smart office lab and some of the technology being tested includes hands-free mind sensing hardware.
  3. Heat mapping can show where employees choose to work in a smart office environment, allowing companies to make better use of workspaces.

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