How IoT and smart buildings will drive employee engagement and workforce productivity

April 2 2019
by Raul Castanon-Martinez, Chris Marsh

The term 'smart building' refers to the ecosystem of interconnected sensors and devices that aggregate and analyze data, with the goal of optimizing building performance to better meet the ongoing needs of its stakeholders, including investors, owners and occupants. Data generated by advanced sensors in networked lighting; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); and security and access controls can improve building management, making it easier, more efficient and cost-effective. Beyond the buildings themselves, these innovations can influence workforce productivity, transforming them into places where workers can concentrate and collaborate effectively. We take a look at how several vendors – including AWS, Buddy, Cisco, Dolby, Klaxoon, Nureva and Poly – are using the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart-building technologies to drive employee engagement and workforce productivity.

The 451 Take

Beyond providing cost-effective, energy-efficient buildings, the convergence of IoT with automation technologies is leading to innovations that can transform the connected workplace, driving employee engagement and productivity. The vendors featured in this report are good examples of how the ecosystem should not be defined strictly in terms of connecting sensors and devices to drive building efficiencies. Their different approaches highlight the role that employees play within the smart-building ecosystem as active participants, creating a collaborative, engaging, productive and sustainable workplace.

The smart-building ecosystem is top of mind for IoT initiatives

The smart-building ecosystem includes a wide range of technologies, from cameras and surveillance equipment to building lighting, HVAC systems and controls, and even end-user devices including smartphones, tablets and wearable devices. These have become top of mind for organizations looking to deploy IoT initiatives. 451 Research's survey data (Internet of Things: Budgets and Outlook 2019) shows that smart-building technologies are second only to datacenter IT equipment in terms of connected endpoints from which organizations collect data.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Driving productivity with intelligent assistants

Voice-enabled intelligent assistants are emerging as the main user interface for many applications, devices and appliances, giving developers flexibility for use cases where data entry or real-time collaboration via a voice interface is the best fit for human-computer interaction. These include intelligent assistants such as AWS's Alexa for Business, Cisco's Webex Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana, which are increasingly finding their way into meeting rooms and audio and video conferences, targeting team collaboration use cases for knowledge workers.

We expect voice-enabled assistants will become the main user interface for a wide range of smart-building use cases. For example, intelligent assistants can be used in meeting rooms, allowing users to control a wide range of devices and settings (including room lightning and temperature, projectors, and other room equipment), as well as for team collaboration, unified communications and audio/video conferencing applications.

AWS's Alexa for Business (A4B) is a speech-enabled intelligent assistant for the enterprise that supports team collaboration and meeting-room use cases. It aims to enhance the end-user experience by performing tasks such as setting up, starting and ending meetings, and checking for availability and booking a meeting room. A4B also supports use cases outside meeting spaces and conference rooms. Shared devices can be deployed in building lobbies, cafeterias and other common areas, and can be used for directions, logistics information and announcements. They are not linked to a specific user, and can be used by anyone who can access the device. Organizations can enroll users, allowing employees to link their personal Alexa accounts with their A4B account. This enables them to use their personal Alexa devices for work, at their desks or in their homes. Once enrolled, organizations can enable calendar access and make private skills available to employees on any of the devices in their personal Alexa accounts; they can also use shared devices in the organization.

Cisco's Webex Assistant is a 'digital team member' capable of voice, visual and text interactions, and is able to access enterprise knowledge. It aims to support team collaboration and enhance the meeting experience by performing tasks such as finding and calling people, starting and ending meetings, and providing in-meeting controls. Cisco is exploring expanded capabilities such as assigning action items and creating meeting summaries.

Increasing employee engagement with immersive spaces

Driven by growing expectations of empowered employees to use engaging technologies, workforce technologies are becoming more contextually relevant and visually immersive. The immersive virtual workspace is a growing market that straddles collaboration, unified communications, content creation, productivity and even IoT with meeting-room sensors and voice agents such as A4B or Cisco Webex Assistant. Such services are typically cloud-enabled and device-agnostic. Several vendors are exploring the application of artificial intelligence and virtual reality to the knowledge-worker and field-worker experiences, as in the case of Spatial, which provides real-time collaboration tools for AR devices like the HoloLens 2, using hand tracking and eye tracking to interact with product holograms and sticky notes during virtual meetings.

Cisco's approach to cognitive collaboration goes beyond using Webex Assistant to start or join a meeting. The company recently announced new features that provide an immersive experience to foster employee engagement. These include intelligent framing, speaker tracking, and noise detection and suppression to optimize the user experience in team meetings, as well as proximity pairing, which uses an employee's smartphone with Webex Teams to identify when they walk into a meeting room and automatically connect them to available devices. Webex Assistant and Webex App (Meetings) also support proximity features.

Dolby Voice Room is a video conferencing solution that intelligently adjusts to lighting, motion, acoustics and voices in different types of rooms to cancel out distracting noise and optimize voice levels, allowing participants to speak more naturally. Its intelligent video features adjust to people and lighting in the room, facilitating remote participant engagement.

Klaxoon provides team collaboration tools and applications that aim to make meetings more efficient and productive, bringing together best practices in education, agile methods, design thinking and visual management. Its approach is based on an online platform that is accessible from any connected device, providing tools and applications to manage and enhance meeting activities, including timekeeping, brainstorming, and interactive features such as surveys, polls, quizzes, gamified challenges and visualization tools. To further drive employee engagement and create an immersive space, it leverages capabilities in MeetingBoard, an interactive digital whiteboard, and the Klaxoon Box, which enables a self-contained environment with a closed Wi-Fi network to help participants focus on the task at hand.

Nureva's HDL300 audio-conferencing system is powered by its proprietary Microphone Mist technology platform, with 8,192 virtual microphones that fill the entire room, allowing participants to be heard no matter where they move in the space. Nureva recently updated the platform with the addition of Active Zone Control, which allows IT staff to designate a zone within the room to be optimized for audio pickup and reduce it outside the active zone by disabling the virtual microphones in that part of the room.

Enabling productivity with augmented reality and immersive audio

We recently outlined how constant distractions can affect the capacity that knowledge workers have to engage with cognitively demanding tasks. This is becoming increasingly challenging given recent trends such as the use of real-time collaboration applications and the growing popularity of open office arrangements. While these are designed to enable collaboration and interaction, they also tend to introduce potential distractions to employees that need to work in a focused manner. This leads employees to options such as wearing headphones or isolating themselves, which can defeat the purpose of the open floor plan.

Poly is the newly announced brand for the company that resulted from 2018's merger of Plantronics and Polycom. Its Habitat Soundscaping solution aims to address workplace distractions by combining augmented reality with immersive audio. It seeks to enable a distraction-free environment with aural isolation and the use of natural sounds and immersive visuals that correspond to the background sound. This allows employees to focus without the brain fatigue that noise mitigation technology can cause. The solution leverages advanced analytics to identify which areas require mitigation, incorporating employee engagement to provide a comprehensive smart-building solution.

Employee engagement drives energy efficiency and sustainability

Energy and utilities management is a key category within the smart-building ecosystem. It looks at the IoT device, sensors and applications focused on data collection and analysis for a wide range of systems that can help building administrators define and enforce policies to control consumption and waste.

Buddy Platform is focused on monitoring and tracking the consumption of building resources, including electricity, gas and water. Its carbon offset as a service aims to provide an affordable solution for buildings looking to mitigate carbon emissions and become energy-efficient. A key differentiation for the company lies in its approach, providing real-time, actionable insight on building-resources consumption for building managers as well as occupants, with the goal of driving behaviors that can have a direct impact on resource utilization.