Robots, Virtual Reality and wearable tech set to enter the workplace

A major influence on where and how we work, emerging technology is set to transform the workplace and the lives of workers

Many changes in the work environment are due to technology. It wasn’t that long ago we were all dealing with faxes rather than e-mails and talking to someone outside the office involved nothing more sophisticated than picking up the telephone.

Today, technology is continuing to impact both how and where we work, with implications for the workplace itself. One area currently on the verge of taking off is the use of connected devices, using the internet of things. This is already becoming established in the consumer market and is likely to have a big impact on the world of work too, allowing individual employees to take control of their environment through devices such as smartphones.

Controlling our environment

According to research by the British Council for Offices (BCO), there is a strong business case for this, with 69 per cent of employees saying a bespoke office interior would boost their productivity. “An example is Land Securities’ Zig Zag Building in Victoria, which is specifically designed to adapt and respond to occupier preferences,” says Richard Kauntze, BCO chief executive. “With built-in intelligent control for lighting, heating and cooling, the building adjusts to employees, rather than the other way round.”

Lighting is perhaps the most obvious area for this kind of technology. “Our phone, watch, smart jewellery or clothing will all play a part in tuning our lighting,” predicts Oliver Jones, UK general manager at Swedish lighting manufacturer ateljé Lyktan. “We will be able to control the light from these devices using pre-set scenes or simple controls. The daily lighting scheme will be dynamic with colour temperature and intensity changing throughout the day or night to give us the most comfortable lighting for wellbeing and productivity.”

transformative workplace technologies

Information around how lighting is used can also help organisations identify which areas of buildings are utilised most so they can make better use of space, he adds.

Connected devices was a major focus for engineering consultancy Arup in its recent research project, called All About the Desk, which found that, while it was relatively easy to allow employees to control the lighting in their immediate environment, it was more difficult to do so with heating.

“There are relatively few heating and air-conditioning units to control, so if two adjacent individuals chose opposing temperature settings, these can end up fighting one another,” says Michael Trousdell, Arup mechanical associate. “To take advantage of this new approach would require a thorough rethink of how building services systems are designed and developed.”

This kind of technology will really come into its own in new-build offices, where the necessary infrastructure can be factored into the design, says Frank Palermo, vice president for global digital solutions at IT firm Virtusa-Polaris. “Questions around sensor placement, required wi-fi, Bluetooth coverage and device communication will need to be foundational to the design,” he says. “It will be vital to make sure that all the variables that need to be controlled are thought of at the start, both internally and externally.”

Double robotics video conferencing in use at Shutterstock's office
Double robotics video conferencing in use at Shutterstock’s office

Wearable tech and virtual reality

Wearable technology could also be set to impact the work environment, building on early applications including access control. Such devices could help employers keep tabs on where employees are and hours worked, as well as tracking movement and even stress levels.

“The areas where I see specific problems being solved in a typical office environment are in increased productivity and employee wellbeing,” says Robert Ackland, group director of product development at 123-reg. The technology could also help organisations ensure compliance with health and safety procedures by monitoring staff activity and health, he adds, although a balance needs to be struck between the benefits to the business and intruding on employees’ privacy.

Employees could use augmented reality to go through data sets or give interactive presentations to one another

Another technology which is likely to infiltrate the workplace is virtual or augmented reality. IFS Labs, for instance, has developed an enterprise version of Google Glass, designed to help technicians undertake maintenance tasks in a workplace.

“Digitisation will offer new user experiences where you can talk to your enterprise applications and give actions that enable you to work hands-free,” says Martin Gunnarsson, product director at IFS R&D. “Smart glasses come into this as well and, in the future, augmented reality and holograms will allow users to have information presented in a 3D perspective, which will really change and adapt the way we work.”

Wearables could transform the workplace, from lighting and heating control, to employee tracking and stress monitoring
Wearables could transform the workplace, from lighting and heating control, to employee tracking and stress monitoring

This could, in time, impact a number of other workplace activities, particularly how employees are trained, says Will McMaster, head of virtual reality at Visualise. “In much the same way as a pilot trains in an immersive flight simulator, many jobs will eventually include a component of virtual training to create an environment as close to real life as possible,” he says. “Skills in customer service, risk assessment, construction and maintenance of technical equipment can all benefit.”

Augmented reality could also have an impact on meetings, says Warwick Goodall, UK technology director at Deloitte. “Employees could use augmented reality to go through data sets or give interactive presentations to one another,” he says. “It would be much more appealing than your average PowerPoint presentation and can be given remotely from anywhere in the world.”

Videoconferencing itself is also likely to change over the next few years, with new software packages meaning people can enter meetings from a number of devices, including mobile phones. “The advent of software such as Skype for Business and Google Hangouts is making traditional videoconferencing boardrooms defunct,” says Simon Fagan, managing director of Maverick UK. New hardware such as Microsoft’s Surface Hub has also emerged, offering much greater collaboration functions, including the ability to share and edit files, he adds.

Even more futuristic is the use of so-called double robotics, which is currently being trialled at US photo library Shutterstock. Adult-sized robots feature an iPad which displays the face of the person in the conference who is not physically present, so that person can “move” around the office with colleagues, “attending” company briefings or meetings without being in the building.

“Currently, we have three robots which are mobile in our office and they may become more permanent fixtures,” says Anshu Aggarwal, chief technology officer at Shutterstock. “Ultimately this could encourage better collaboration and communication between our staff, wherever they may be across the globe.”