Walking through the sensor-activated doors at your workplace, a Siri-like voice greets you: “Good Morning, valued employee”.
Strolling past what used to be a receptionist, your phone pings: four meetings today, it reads. Three on level three, one on level two. For optimum time efficiency, your centralised workplace application suggests one of two desks on the third floor.
However, the app warns, given your previous lighting and temperature preferences, the third floor may be too cold today. You would be better suited to the first floor. And, the app adds, given that your data shows a propensity to distraction and lower output in busy areas, with fewer people on the first floor, it might be a better option for increasing productivity.
Plus, it looks like you didn’t sleep or exercise enough last night, and your blood pressure is a little higher than usual. There is a yoga class between your second and third meetings that it would be advisable for you to take.
The future is now
If this all sounds like a pulpy mash-up of Blade Runner, The Office, and 1984, you’re probably right. But far-fetched it is not. At home, internet of things devices – from smart-lighting to Fitbits – are making our lives more efficient, productive, and pleasant. The future is now, and while not every firm is quite up to speed with the workplace data revolution, it surely won’t be long.
The number of devices connected to the internet is predicted to reach some 75bn by 2025, up from around eight billion today. That sort of rapid proliferation requires us to rethink the very concept of a network. Cisco, the Silicon Valley networking conglomerate, is ahead of the curve. It has devised what it describes as “intent-based networking” to ensure that network infrastructure can handle the approaching deluge of information in the Internet of Everything.
That sort of rapid proliferation requires us to rethink the very concept of a network
David Goff, the UK head of enterprise networks at Cisco, asks: “how are you going to deal with that? You can’t have more and more people sat in an operations team to push the buttons. You have to have the power of computing. That’s what we do with the intuitive network. It’s about enabling the network to see things, to think things and then do things, without any manual intervention.”
While the near-future utopian workplace at the start of this article is fictionalised, large parts of it are already a reality at Cisco’s headquarters. But increasing efficiency and productivity – while improving employee collaboration and the firm’s green credentials – has seriously increased the number of devices on its network. Cisco has gone from half a million to two million nodes in the space of 12 months.
“That level of personalisation that we have in our office space, it’s all network-based. You can’t have an IT team trying to come up with that stuff, because they’d fail, it’s just too much data.”
By having everything connected to a machine learning network, it makes it far easier for the millions of devices to talk to each other. Previously, every new device or node added to a given network would need to be validated, authenticated, and added to the right segment by a human being – perhaps hundreds of times a day.
Of course, as more and more IoT devices are added to that network, fallible human beings can make mistakes. Leaving yourself exposed to hackers has never been easier.
“Your company air conditioning units are connected to the internet because there’s a benefit to doing that – you can drive some efficiency, and make the office an optimum temperature. But if that’s connected to the internet and it’s not protected, that’s an entry point for a hacker. So what you don’t want are things like your building services being hacked, and for that to then expose your point of sale service, where you’ve got customer financial information.
“If you’re segmenting the network, there’s no reason to an air conditioning unit to be talking to your financial servers.”
Of course, this shouldn’t dissuade would-be automaters from upgrading their office digs. Part of Goff’s role includes talking to City firms about the benefits of workplace automation, and creating a connected, high tech, highly collaborative environment.
Some are obvious: replacing mundane tasks with automated processes gives employees fewer things to worry about, thus increasing happiness and output. Or, by having your entire lighting network connected to smart sensors, you won’t waste as much electricity. But the benefits of collecting masses of data are perhaps less obvious. Firms can begin to collect data about their everyday operations which reveals previously unknown trends. A certain area may be a gauntlet that slows employees getting around. A darkened corner might be a good place to slack off. An empty corner gets no use at all.
Or, says Goff: “you don’t want 1,000 desks. You’ve got to work out what space is being used at any given moment, track and compare it. That way you can start to help organisations’ network understanding: who’s using what space when.
“For a financial director looking at their second largest cost, real estate, they can start to see how people are using that space. What are they using it for, what are they not? Do you actually need to pay for that space? Can you reassign it differently. Maybe you want to use it as an open area? If you’re using two floors, it might turn out you only need one.”
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Naturally this comes with some ethical issues, such as: do I really want my employer harvesting masses of data on my every move and interaction? With the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation fast approaching, your employer won’t be able to collect the data without your explicit permission for doing so.
While the technology is nascent, it will have its sceptics. Futurists will see it as an opportunity for technology-led self improvement. Others may see it as a neat gimmick. But for many, your employer knowing more about you than you do yourself, might just be a bit creepy – for now.