Why companies need to be ready for the IoT in the office—and how they can get there

Workplace tropes frequently peg the office watercooler as the unofficial meeting place where people congregate to gossip or commiserate while staying hydrated in the corporate world’s climate-controlled environs. But imagine a future where that watercooler does more than just dispense liquid—what if it could connect to a network and become “smart?”

Maybe it could automatically order a new filter when its sensors registered that it needed one, or act as a Wi-Fi access point to boost network performance, or detect a malfunction in the system and send an alert that something needs repair. By connecting a formerly one-trick-pony appliance to a network, the humble watercooler could become a data collection and analysis device that automates processes and makes employees’ lives easier.

This is hypothetical, but analogous scenarios are occurring in workplaces across the world. Driven by the need to make highly informed decisions and become more productive, companies across the globe are incorporating IoT (Internet of Things) devices and smart technologies into the office to provide access to realtime data, creating what’s been dubbed the connected workplace.

While a connected workplace might comprise devices and technologies, it can be defined by four main qualities: mobility and the cloud, digitization, security, and customization.

The Four Tiers of the Connected Office

Mobility and the cloud often go hand in hand; workers of today are used to being able to access information from anywhere, using the device that best fits their needs. A workplace that allows employees to work from anywhere, using apps and data they access from an employer data center based in the cloud, spurs collaboration and productivity among its workers.

Digitization—not just digitalization—is a major part of the connected office. Employees still need the ability to take analog output from a camera or printer to create a digital image, especially in industries like healthcare, IT, and real estate where paper and digital images often are equal parts of the business process. Even as companies push to become more digital, it’s important to remember that paper is not going away entirely, and neither is the need to make digital copies.

It goes without saying that as more workers become mobile and work from their own devices, security becomes a bigger concern. Businesses must ensure all employees have equal access to a company cloud or server no matter what device they use or where they are, while protecting valuable data from attackers.

As more specialized services and apps become available for business use, customization is playing a larger role in the creation of a connected office. With so many available tools and interfaces, no business looks the same anymore; each individual company can customize their suite of technology tools to increase productivity and streamline processes.

Some businesses may be reluctant to jump feet-first into a workplace of connected devices—either because of cost or because it’s not the way things have traditionally been done—but employers shouldn’t be afraid of the workplace of the future because they stand to benefit as well.

Why Businesses Should Care

There are a few reasons businesses should invest in connected technologies, the main one being employee productivity. Two of the key tenets of a connected workplace, according to Forrester, are that employees will have access to more services and data to do their jobs better, and technology will augment their ability to do their jobs.

Connecting people to devices and apps will give them the data and information to make better decisions, and technology will help automate some monotonous tasks, letting employees focus on more creative, complex challenges to deliver work that is more valuable to the business. This extra productivity and streamlined decision-making can create cost savings for a business; every minute has a price tag on it, and time saved is money earned in many cases.

Additionally, employees—especially younger generations now entering the workplace or moving into middle management roles—are beginning to demand these types of tools. Businesses need to come to terms with the idea that if they do not create the technology-focused company that many employees now expect—no matter what industry they are—it may be difficult to attract and retain talented staff.

Think of when PCs began to be mainstream in offices: By the early ‘90s, if a business was still providing its staff with typewriters and calculators instead of computers, it was considered antiquated.

Finally, companies need to remember this is a new era and it’s simply not possible to do things the old way and remain competitive. Everything is constantly changing, and the businesses that can swing with the punches and integrate timesaving, productivity-increasing applications and tools that make a smarter workplace are the ones that will stay ahead of the curve.

Getting Ready for the Connected Office

Enterprise companies and mom-and-pop offices alike have some motivating factors to make their workplaces more connected. But how do you get there?

A preliminary step is to change your default mentality: Don’t settle for the status quo, and don’t assume it will be painful to change. Begin putting programs in place that enable connected technologies and mobile devices to flourish—and finding tools that people can get excited about is the first step to easing into the transition.

Next, look around your industry. Who are the benchmark leaders in the industry, and what kinds of technologies are they using—both generic and industry specific? It’s OK to be a copycat—it’s how you’ll stay competitive. As your company becomes more comfortable being connected, eventually you can strive to be the trendsetter.

The next point to consider is how to maintain security in an environment of multiple connected devices. This requires management of mobile devices, typically done using an EMM (enterprise mobility management) solution. VMware AirWatch, MobileIron, and BlackBerry/Good are all top providers of EMMs, each with their own specialties. For example, BlackBerry is focused on certain verticals, AirWatch has perhaps the largest breadth of installation, MobileIron is driving innovation around access and control, and so on. All of the security protocols can be invisible to individual employees outside the IT department, but it’s critical to have a system in place to manage and detect threats and protect data. These tools are becoming more standardized and mainstream as companies like Google, Microsoft, and Samsung make inroads in this space.

The need for security cannot be emphasized enough. Even major companies have experienced issues that have impacted access to data and customer service; compromised information; and affected operations and productivity for days, weeks or even months. It becomes the business leader’s responsibility to ensure a connected workplace is also secure a secure workplace. The coming years will usher in a tenfold improvement in security, and will require that companies partner with the leaders in each area to ensure all devices and connections are secure.

Finally, determine where you can get the biggest bang for your buck by bringing in smart technology to streamline a process or change the way people work. For example, some companies have found ways to add value to learning or training sessions by coupling mobile devices and tools with paper classroom materials. This creates a multi-platform session in which both physical and technical touchpoints foster improved learning and collaboration.

Paper’s Continued Role in the Connected Office

As in the example of the learning session, paper is not going away; it is and will remain a part of any office workflow. Even as employees transition to working on tablets or mobile phones from a desktop or laptop, they still need to print; in fact, sometimes people print more, to give their eyes a break or to improve collaboration. As much as electronic devices and paperless workflows improve automation and reduce the need for paper, there are still reasons that documents need to be physical.

A printer must be part of the mobile, smart ecosystem, connected, and app-enabled just as other parts of the office are. A printer often functions as an on- and off-ramp to other tasks and functionalities, and thus there must be a seamless interaction between mobile devices and printers in the workplace to keep employees productive. Printers today are at the core of many business processes, with access to large amounts of data. It is therefore imperative that your printer also be part of the security model for the office, and integrate well with the app ecosystem that has become a cornerstone of productivity improvement.

According to an InfoTrends study, 95% of consumers and 67% of business users want the ability to print from their mobile devices. But unfortunately, many workplaces aren’t meeting their employees’ desires—research shows that only 56% of users are satisfied with current mobile print options.

The ability to print from mobile devices makes the connected workplace more productive; all an employee needs to do to print is hit a few buttons from whatever device he or she is working on, from wherever he or she is, and the paper comes out of the connected office printer instantly.

Clients or vendors visiting an office for meetings or sales calls also need the capability to print from their tablet or mobile phone; some connected printers allow machine-to-machine authentication so that an outsider can print from their device without having to get on the company’s network or requiring access to passwords to keep data secure.

Making New Connections

According to Frost & Sullivan, “The enterprise communications and collaboration market is in the midst of an era of unprecedented change. Traditional solutions, vendors, and their ecosystems are being completely disrupted by rapidly evolving technologies, cloud delivery models, digital-enabled business models, and changing enterprise and user preferences. By 2020, we will see a completely transformed landscape of solutions, providers, and delivery and business models in this industry.”

This new landscape will present opportunities as well as challenges for businesses across the globe—but with the right approach to a connected future, companies everywhere can reap the benefits of realtime data capture and analytics, higher productivity, happier employees, smarter decision-making, and lower operating costs.

About the Author

Brent Richtsmeier is chairman of the Mopria Alliance Steering Committee