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The future of work and a new era of smart buildings

Posted on May 4, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

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Future of workThere was a time when a smart building was one that could adapt to meet the needs of occupants or to changing environmental conditions. It would include things like motion sensors to turn lights off if nobody was using a room as well building controls to open and close windows and adjust sun shades to create an optimum working environment and cut energy costs. All that is about to change however as we enter the era of the Internet of Things (IoT). This is one of the core technologies at the heart of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution and it’s game changing in exactly the same way the Internet was 25 years ago. It is defined as the network of physical objects devices, vehicles, buildings and other items, embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data. In short, everything is connected to everything else and is able to communicate.

This is new technology but it is rapidly gaining traction. According to researchers Gartner some 1.6 billion devices will be connected by the end of this year and the initial uptake in their use will not be in our homes and personal devices but in office buildings. Their study, Internet of Things — Endpoints and Associated Services Worldwide  claims that smart commercial buildings, particularly those subject to Building Information Modelling technology will pioneer applications. Commercial real estate benefits greatly from IoT implementation because it creates a unified view of facilities management as well as advanced service operations through the collection of data and insights from a multitude of sensors.

The upshot is that we will know more and more about what happens inside office buildings and this in turn will shape their design and management. According to Gartner,  IoT can help reduce the cost of energy, spatial management and building maintenance by up to 30 percent. The UK’s building information modelling (BIM) mandate requires that all public sector construction that gets underway after April 2016 complies with BIM (level 2).

This is all very welcome but there is another aspect to the new era that is already becoming problematic. A story published recently by the BBC asked the reasonable question of whether this emerging technology is a boon or will just allow firms to snoop on employees. So while staff may welcome the opportunity to control aspects of the building with a smartphone app, will they be quite so keen when the building looks back at them to see where they are and what they’re doing.

The beginnings of this tension are already apparent. Two recent stories highlight just how concerned we are already becoming about the use of technology to monitor our behaviour. Last year bosses at the Daily Telegraph were found to have installed sensors under the desks of employees to find out when they were sitting at their desks. Then in January, a ruling was published by the European Court of Human Rights that was interpreted as a rubber stamp for firms to monitor the private messages of staff. While there’s no doubt that the bosses at the Telegraph mishandled the use of the sensors,  the facts in both cases are somewhat different to the headlines they made.

With regards to the story about the desk monitoring sensors at the Telegraph, there is at least some justification for the outrage. Not so much because of the sensors themselves, but for the way they were introduced. Workplace monitoring sensors are now extremely commonplace and people don’t mind them, especially because the data they produce is (or should be) aggregated so is not specific to an individual. The problem at The Telegraph appears to be that they were introduced without consultation or even the knowledge of the people they were monitoring. Nothing will quite raise people’s hackles like the suspicion they are being snooped on, so it’s no surprise that the sensors have now been removed. Our bet is that they’ll be back soon though.

On the second story, it emerged that the ECHR had ruled in the case of a Romanian worker who was sacked by his employer in 2007 for using a Yahoo account to send personal messages to his fiancée and brother. The ruling concluded that it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.” Leading the charge into the misreporting of the ruling was the BBC who announced that “Private messages at work can be read by European employers“. This was pretty much in line with the reporting across the UK media, including both broadsheets and tabloids (who appear to have got some extra mileage from the usual complaint that the EU was imposing a barmy new law on the UK’s benighted population).

As the dust settles, a few voices have begun to highlight the facts behind this story. For a start the worker at the centre of it all had actually been using a work social media account for his private messages and secondly, the UK’s courts could just ignore the ruling if they wanted.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development did its own bit to calm things down. Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD has issued the following statement. “The line between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred. We know that the working day rarely fits into a nine-to-five mould any more. Employees often respond to work emails on personal devices outside of usual working hours so it makes sense that, on occasion, they may want to engage in social correspondence during the working day on a work device. It’s about give and take and about trusting employees rather than creating a culture of surveillance and suspicion.”

“This ruling is not a green light for businesses to start snooping on their employees. Our research has shown that excessive monitoring of employees by organisations often cultivates a culture of distrust and negatively impacts on their loyalty and commitment. Employees that feel under excessive surveillance are also more likely to suffer from stress so there needs to be a clear case for monitoring. Organisations need to be transparent about if they are doing it and why; for example, being clear on the risks that the monitoring is designed to prevent. Employers should also set out clear rules around what personal use they do allow and what the limitations on this may be, such as the hours in which it is permitted.”

“It’s about respect too, and that goes both ways. As much as employees need to respect that certain rules are in place in order to protect businesses – in terms of reputation, data and productivity – employers need to treat their people with respect and provide some flexibility to help workers balance their personal and professional lives.”

Striking this balance will be the challenge for the new era of connected devices. As workplace designers, they will allow us to know even more about our clients and how they work. But at the same time they must be used sympathetically. The creation of humane working environments cannot begin by treating people  like robots.

Main image: Steelcase