Smart Offices: how technology changes us

The Core | CBRE Amsterdam; Architect: CBRE Design; Photo: Stijnstijl PhotographyThe Core | CBRE Amsterdam; Architect: CBRE Design; Photo: Stijnstijl Photography

Technology changes our relationship with time and spaces. In the office and elsewhere. Smarter spaces where IoT devices and immaterial software permit new forms of interaction and management. The office becomes a shared environment, a “time-based” real-virtual hybrid. But it is not just a question of technology; it is also about governance of working processes. We talked about it with some experts: Magnus Persson, Head of Product and Research of Nimway, Antonio Grillo, Service Design and User Experience Director of NTTData and Lorenzo Fava, Sales Specialist for Collaboration of Cisco Italia. 

According to the recent Global Workforce Survey by Cisco, 58% of employees expect to work from home for at least one week per month, even when the pandemic is over, although 98% of them report frequent frustration in the use of tools like video conferencing, especially in the home. 97% would like to have better guarantees that workspaces are safe, and 96% of the companies interviewed say they intend to invest in technology to make offices more “intelligent.” The research sheds light on certain global trends: the spread of a “hybrid” remote-proximate office, with the result of progressive dematerialization and digitalization of work processes, and an increasingly smart workplace, equipped with intelligent and pervasive technologies that will have an impact not only on the quality of physical space, but also on the dynamics of its use.

These scenarios are echoed by other authoritative studies, including the 2020 research conducted by the Osservatorio Smart Working of the Milan Polytechnic, which analyzed the activities that will be most likely to find in the office of the future: from socializing (68%) to encounters with external visitors (58%); from recruiting (44%) to strategy meetings (43%) and training (32%). The result is “time-based” space usage based on specific activities.

Courtesy of NimwayMagnus Persson and Ivana Milanovic (Marketing Manager for Nimway) next to a digital floorplan, Sony office, Lund, Sweden. Courtesy of Sony

Activity-based working and new technologies

Magnus Persson, Head of Product and Research of Nimway (Sony Group), clarifies matters: “Workplaces are nowadays more activity-based than time-based. They have been deployed and fine-tuned, especially in northern Europe, for over ten years. Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, strategies and activities have become more aligned around the world. In new offices, collaborative and creative tasks are gaining additional attention. As many companies will continue to offer hybrid solutions, where the employees work partly from home or in co-working areas, having a dedicated room or desk for each employee becomes harder to justify, both from a financial but also from an environmental point of view.”

If the desk will no longer be a personal reference point, the need will arise to find new ones. Technology thus provides solutions that encourage greater awareness in the use of all the space of the office: Nimway is developing solutions that include wayfinding systems, with digital layouts and mobile apps that facilitate intuitive circulation in the office, devices to monitor available spaces with sensors, or digital displays for reserving meeting rooms, as well as apps for remote desk management or malfunction-repair alerts, boosting efficiency in shared spaces. The result is an integrated ecosystem, personalized on the basis of strategy and the specific business approach of each company. An ecosystem that is also being developed by the most important multinationals in the world of computers - Fujitsu, IAConnect in partnership with IBM, Interact by Signify (Philips), NTT Design Network which includes the brand Tangity, and Samsung, just to name a few, without attempting a complete overview, and keeping in mind that each company has its own specificities in terms of services and technologies.

Sensori Nimway incorporati su una scrivania. Courtesy of NimwayNimway occupancy sensor mounted under a desk. Courtesy of Sony

New technologies such as occupancy sensors,” Persson continues, “give facility managers a clear, detailed and continuously updated view of the way office spaces are being used, and hence help them understand the needs of the employees. This allows quick and correct decisions to be taken. Even before the pandemic, promoting collaboration and spontaneous meetings was a priority for us, but now we’re releasing additional features to stimulate collaboration among people working more from home. Sensors will play a key role both on security and hygiene issues of workspace, with the advantage that they can be quickly and centrally adapted, based on changing needs, guidelines and regulations. So will be the solutions to protect the individual employee’s privacy.”

Scenarios for the smart office

The implications of the smart office range beyond sharing of spaces and also involve the wellbeing of people, a factor increasingly at the crux of socio-cultural debate. Major resources have been invested to improve the time we spend in the office, or working from home, connected with the quality of workspace. According to the Workplace 2025 study conducted by the researchers at PAC (CXP Group), in collaboration with Fujitsu, easy, instant and multichannel modes of access to shared content will be increasingly important. The interfaces of devices will be like extensions of the human senses, probably more and more wearable and less obtrusive. The technologies detect the environmental parameters to improve personal wellness or, by monitoring over time, they can permit redesign and modification of lighting, climate control and power supply in a more efficient way, based on the effective use made of spaces. Likewise, “mediation” apps can help workers to prevent electronic or work overload – the so-called “burnout” – enabling people to temporarily disconnect without losing touch. This type of intelligent connectivity will be organized on a unified technological platform. And all these things are now in progress.

© Alga Studio© Alga Studio

Smart objects: what is their impact on behavior?

Antonio Grillo, Service Design and User Experience Director of Tangity, the design studio of NTTData, clarifies certain aspects of smart objects. “Their intelligence allows them to automatically adapt to needs, becoming part of our everyday routines. They know about our preferences, our faces, what we say and where we go. These objects enter into dialogue with us, not simply obeying orders. Those who design them have a big responsibility towards their users, because thanks to the relationships they can forge with human beings these objects influence our behavior. Smart objects are platforms for new services, and they are capable of creating new revenue streams, but only when seen in a perspective that combines business, services and products. Otherwise there is the risk of creating a bottleneck, if we focus only on technology, or only on business. Technology can help to make workspaces more dynamic, able to empathize with needs, recording them and changing as a result. Sentient objects help us to understand diversities of needs and to adapt, personalizing experiences, even in the case of a workspace. Therefore we can provide the right quantity of air, depending on the people in a room, correct lighting depending on the time of day and the weather, and we can change spaces, walls, sounds and fragrances, responding to the level of stress of the people in a space. Imagine an office that recognizes you and changes to fit your mood, your tasks, or simply your preferences at the moment. A more dynamic space also means getting beyond physical forms, because it can be mobile and easily transported to the home or elsewhere. This is the challenge for those who think about the future of the office today: to understand how to use technology to make work experience memorable and liquid at the same time.”

Courtesy of CiscoCourtesy of Cisco

New tools for collaboration

We have personally experienced the frustration of trying to work with tools that do not really facilitate collaboration, networking and long-distance meetings. But this has only been a partial experience: technology is already able to offer more sophisticated cooperative tools for real-time sharing, more transparent, gestural interfaces, multi-sensory techniques of communication that allow workers to carry out multiple tasks without losing concentration, or technologies that shift timing to let people collaborate in their usual working hours even with people located in different time zones.
“For the moment, we have been using computers and tablets whose level of engagement is quite low,” says Lorenzo Fava, Sales Specialist for Collaboration at Cisco Italia. “There are many advanced tools which are capable of canceling out background noise, in the home or office, with automatic coordination that simplifies issues of framing and backdrops, the ease of sharing contents – as in the case of digital slates – and can generate a dialogue between devices in the home and office. The hybrid model, in which physical and virtual space interpenetrate, has to be implemented. Likewise, video is not the only medium for the sharing of information. Interactive slates up to 85 inches in size are already available, on which up to four people can write at the same time, with virtual pages that can be altered by multiple users in real time, eliminating the problems of video conferences, such as the proximity to the monitor and the correct lighting. We are now developing the technology of holograms. For a recent event of Ambrosetti we created a virtual holographic stage. But we can also create 3D models that convey a perception of the volume of objects – now applied to jewelry – opening up new scenarios for various sectors, from manufacturing to medicine.”

Courtesy of CiscoCourtesy of Cisco

Innovation in technology or in management?

The technologies are many, so it is impossible to list them all: from those for managing/scheduling of office spaces, which accompany and trace people through all their activities in the facility, to “virtual keys” used in access control – AgilQuest, Condeco, KISI, Navori, Senion, Sobos, Tapkey, just to name a few. The most interesting aspect is the emphasis on the time variable in the new technologies: shared and time-based spaces, efficientized facilities, and even time subscription systems, in the case of co-working (ex. Archie, Ricoh). Whether this technological acceleration and the hybrid office will lead, after the pandemic, to a truly alternative work model is more a question of management than one of technology. It does not have to do only with economic or business returns for the company, but also with the real advantages of an updated balance between working life and personal life. Another step forward is needed, also in regulatory terms, in the more general governance of labor dynamics.

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