Getting smarter in the workplace

Posted on: 30 August 2018

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Smart building technology is transforming the way businesses operate, with sensors and tracking devices able to monitor everything from an escape of water and temperature changes in electrical systems to how employees move around the workspace. While this is driving efficiencies and making the workplace safer, it’s also changing the risk landscape.

Tracking technology is already well established in the fleet motor market, with telematics providing organisations with valuable insight into how vehicles are used. But, as this form of technology is adopted within commercial premises and warehouses, its application will become even broader.


There’s almost nothing that can’t have a sensor or tracking device attached to it. As well as basic applications such as sensors to detect heat, leaks and smoke, this technology can also be used to measure more complex conditions such as the quality of the air or how employees use their workspace."

- James Tucker, smart technology manager at Allianz

Benefits

Having this insight offers a number of significant benefits to organisations.

Risk mitigation

Monitoring factors such as heat and escape of water can reduce the probability of major losses including fire and water damage. As an example, a heat sensor attached to a circuit board will give an early warning of overheating that could potentially otherwise lead to a fire. Similarly, a sensor that measures the temperature of food in fridges, could detect an overnight power cut. Although this might have gone undetected, the temperature increase could compromise food safety.

Employee health and safety

Smart building technology creates a safer working environment for employees in a number of ways. As well as safeguarding them from harmful conditions such as poor air quality, fire and fumes, using sensors on employees can help to create more efficient and ergonomic workplaces. This can reduce the risk of injuries and musculoskeletal problems.

Taken further, it can help an organisation create an optimum workplace for employees. This could benefit employee wellbeing and push up productivity.


Ford is using body tracking technology on its assembly line in Spain to improve workstation design, enhance manufacturing quality and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal problems. In its pilot, 70 employees wore skintight suits containing 15 tiny movement tracking light sensors connected to a wireless detection unit. The data collected was analysed by ergonomists to help employees align their posture correctly and to design workstations that better fit them1.


Energy efficiencies

A blog from IBM2 highlights the way this technology can drive efficiencies in building management. It states that the day-to-day operation of a building represents more than 70% of the building’s total cost over its lifespan. By using sensors to measure factors such as ambient temperature, light levels and CO2 levels, energy consumption can be monitored. Then, by interfacing this data with an intelligent building management system, services can be switched off and on when required.


IBM cites the Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi as an example. By installing a system to monitor the temperature and open and close its building louvres as needed, it results in 60% less solar gain and a 1,750 ton a year reduction in CO2 emissions.


Time and motion advantages

Understanding how the workplace is used can help to ensure that working environments are as efficient as possible. As an example, take one of the common work frustrations – finding an office that’s free for a meeting. Often left empty after a meeting finishes early, by integrating sensors in the rooms with the booking software, an organisation could reap the benefits of a reactive, live calendar.

Urban planners Tyréns worked with IBM, installing 1,000 internet-connected sensors to monitor factors such as temperature, humidity, light, power usage and movement. Understanding how a building was used enabled it to save energy and create a smarter workplace. As an example, knowing that the average employee went to the bathroom 3.6 times on Mondays but only 2.6 on Fridays, meant it could optimise cleaning schedules and supply purchasing3.

Insurance implications

Using smart devices to manage risks and create an optimum working environment has implications for insurance too.

Monitoring fire and escape of water risks can ensure these perils are detected early and, in some cases, even before there is a loss. This has the potential to reduce claims on property insurance.

The focus on employee health and safety could also reduce claims on employers’ liability policies. The risk of accidents will be reduced by using data to design smarter work stations and, by monitoring air quality, it will also help to prevent employees from being exposed to harmful substances.

This could also have knock-on benefits for other employee health-related insurances such as group income protection, private medical insurance and potentially also life insurance.
 

Challenges

But, while this technology has the potential to bring significant benefits, adoption is not without its challenges. As well as the logistical issues around introducing these types of devices, the big brother overtones associated with monitoring mean there can be resistance from some employees.

How this type of initiative is communicated can help to overcome any suspicions, with employees more receptive where they feel there’s something in it for them too. This could be something integral to the monitoring, for instance, safety improvements resulting from more effective fume detection, or a separate incentive, such as a longer break or change in role, which could be possible due to the efficiencies achieved.

Using these devices may also require a change in resourcing. Alarms and machine-to-machine communication systems, where a sensor captures information that is used to drive another action such as a motion sensor turning off the lights when no one is in the room, are self-contained, but other sensors generate data that needs to be analysed. As a result, businesses must ensure they have adequate resources to get the most out of these devices.

While there are challenges, as more organisations discover the benefits of using smart devices to gain a better understanding of the workplace, this form of technology could well become the norm.