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Creating a Smarter Smart Office

Added to IoTplaybook or last updated on: 09/19/2018

In the business world, the question is no longer whether to adopt IoT devices, but how to deploy groups of devices to reap greater benefits. A recent AT&T Business report offers some perspective: “A connected machine does not become ‘smart’ from a single sensor, or modem, or network, or application alone. It is a combination of all of these pieces coming together that creates added intelligence.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the smart office space. A mélange of sensors, devices, and components, many running on entirely separate systems or networks, fails to deliver the full value of the Internet of Things. In a previous column, we examined the types of smart office systems available and the automation opportunities they present. Understanding what’s required to design and build smart offices, however, is critical too.

Making Connections Count

A smart office involves more than simply installing a smart lighting system or more advanced climate controls. The real goal is integrating seemingly disparate functions to generate cost savings or productivity gains. When lights, windows shades, and HVAC all work together, for instance, it’s possible to adjust the environment automatically for optimal heating, cooling, and lighting, including in specific areas or offices as needed.

Michael Szczepanski, a Minneapolis, Minn. user interface designer and app developer, recently created an IoT-connected toilet for a client’s 500-plus person firm. Using airplane signs as an inspiration, he built a system that checks whether the toilet door is open or closed. It then flashes a green (unoccupied) or red (occupied) message for office workers on a mobile app. In a 70-person office, the system has minimized wasted time getting up to check availability. Szczepanski built the system using simple components, including a reed sensor and an open source Arduino microcontroller.

The power of Szczepanski’s design isn’t so much in a connected toilet, though it’s easy to see how that could improve productivity. It’s all about how connected systems can extend across an office space and beyond. For instance, it’s possible to “find plenty of other rooms that could be tracked based on their usage,” he notes. Szczepanski found that he could link 40 conference rooms across four locations into a single app, for instance, enabling everyone in a group of offices to know when and where conference spaces are available.

Finding a Platform

Smart offices, like most IoT deployments, can be relatively simple or complex. Either way, it’s critical to map out a solution based on actual problems and opportunities. The next step is to find components that address the challenge at hand. The last step is deploying and integrating sensors, devices, and systems that perform the desired tasks.

At the heart of all this is a need for an IoT platform that can manage everything from hardware to analytics, and, within larger projects, multi-network connectivity. Look for a platform or ecosystem that supports smart office environments and effectively ties together automation, security, and communications while allowing an organization to scale up as needed. While vendors increasingly offer APIs to connect systems, custom development may be required, including the creation of a mobile app.

In the end, those who assemble the pieces effectively will transform an office into an environment suited for the digital age.


Samuel Greengard is a business and technology writer based in West Linn, Ore. He is the author of The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).