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The IoT’s role in the digital workplace of the future

Chris Stephenson, Head of Complex Digital and IoT Solutions at O2, discusses the role that the IoT can play in getting us back to work and shaping the digital workplace of the future.

The Internet of Things (IoT)brings many advantages to people around the globe, from transport to health – and from retail to the home. However, the value is not just in the things located around the environment, it’s in the data and insights that these sensors deliver, and how they can impact our daily lives.

Until now, when we considered the business case for the Internet of Things (IoT), we have tended to focus on ways to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. For example, the heating, lighting and energy use in many of our offices and warehouses are being monitored and optimised using connected sensors, resulting in substantial energy savings. Our workplace premises are secured with smart locks and cameras, and our machinery is being maintained with predictive maintenance – with repairs undertaken when required, rather than at specific intervals.

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The events of the past six months have changed the way we work forever, and it’s time to re-evaluate even what we even mean by the term workplace. For many of us, working remotely, or from home, will remain the default option for the foreseeable future. To make this possible, we have seen how much of the technology that enables communication and collaboration with clients and colleagues has stood up well and proven to be fit for purpose.

For others, the offices, showrooms and factory floors are beckoning us back, but there are new challenges to overcome. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, is confidence. What do we need to do to make our workforce feel safe to return? This is where I believe that the IoT has a vital role to play.

  • Travel
    If commuter confidence in public transport is to return to pre-2020 levels then trains, buses, concourses and transport hubs must be clean and safe to use. The IoT can play its part. For example, O2 has been working with a large transport infrastructure provider on innovative projects that link sensor-enabled cameras with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) application – they monitor footfall, as well as the percentage of travellers wearing face masks. This enables real time information and reporting on likely bottlenecks and passenger safety.
  • Cleaning and Hygiene
    Until now, we have been used to setting cleaning schedules of public spaces based on elapsed time, rather than on demand. For example, what if IoT sensors could show that of a six carriage train, two carriages were not used at all during a particular journey? In high usage, shared areas within a well-known London transport hub, O2 has been able to monitor washroom facilities by installing sensors that assess occupancy. When a set number of visits have been recorded, a workflow is triggered – allocating cleaning staff to refresh the facilities to maintain a clean and safe environment.

If the IoT can help to make travelling to work safer, what about the workplace itself?

After six months of avoiding shaking hands and touching surfaces, I believe it will be some time before we feel confident touching shared surfaces and tools in the workplace on a daily basis. Whether it’s the office door handle, the light switch, the remote control or the monitor switch, we need to find effective, alternative solutions.

For this, digital transformation can’t come quickly enough, and the IoT can provide part of the solution. We are already seeing digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Home embedded in our smartphones, using artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning technology to support day to day tasks like controlling devices in our homes. They can do the same at work. Your smartphone could communicate with your virtual receptionist to gain entry to your office, guide you to your workspace, switch on the lights and boot up your PC.

Automation on this scale may solve some of the practical challenges we need to address, but it creates other, new challenges as well. Whilst I have been able to work from home effectively these past months, I have missed the train journeys, the coffee shop conversations, and the face to face interaction with my colleagues. The fully automated, no touch route from front door to office desk might keep me safe, but it isn’t what I’d choose, and I don’t suppose many of my team would either.

So where do we draw the line? I stayed in a hotel recently where I checked in, and obtained my room key, from a foyer kiosk. I found the experience both straightforward and efficient. It occurred to me that you could use the same technology, in a hospital, for admitting patients. Yet here it seems entirely inappropriate, despite the efficiencies it could deliver. The technology exists that can minimise human interaction as much as possible by doing everything through our devices. But we need to balance that with the emotional well-being needs of the individuals as well.

So I ask again, where do we draw the line? For me, the role of the IoT in the workplace of the future is to deliver two distinct demands:

  1. To keep employees safe
  2. To enable them to be as productive as possible

It’s about more than simply connecting things – it’s about the impact on the people involved. If we start with the experience we want our teams and customers to have, then we can design the IoT infrastructure to deliver it.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. You can connect with me onLinkedIn.
If you’d like to know more about the LTE-M network, and find out how it could support your IoT ambitions, call us on 0800 955 5590 or get in touch. 

Share your opinions on IoT #O2Opinions.

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