Hot Topic: The connected office

The business opportunity of the Internet of Things cannot be underestimated. It will change the way everyone works and we are only just beginning to feel its influence.


It’s no secret that the office products world is undergoing metamorphosis, but the unknown factor is what it will look like when it emerges on the other side. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a primary reason for this as it is constantly moving the goalposts, not only in terms of new products, applications, services and solutions, but because it is responsible for the continual re-imagining of the office environment. In effect, it will disrupt every industry and business over the coming years and even decades. 

Consulting firm McKinsey Global Institute estimates a total potential economic impact – including consumer surplus – of $3.9- $11 trillion per year in 2025 for IoT applications. The business opportunity of IoT-based applications for the office could be worth between $70-$150 billion, with the primary activity based on security and energy management. 

In addition, McKinsey research suggests that IoT applications for the office such as augmented reality could provide a productivity improvement of 10%, while activity monitoring could improve productivity by 5%. Meanwhile, energy monitoring could result in savings of 20%, and IoT security applications could reduce labour costs by 20%-50%. 

While the IoT ‘concept’ has been around for some time, the past few years have seen it come into its own. It envelopes the recent technology trends of mobile communications, cloud computing and big data and offers a myriad of opportunities for manufacturing and vertical industries. 

It is widely accepted that the Internet of Things can be split into two broad camps: consumer-oriented IoT and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). 

McKinsey believes that B2B applications will generate almost 70% of the potential value enabled by IoT, although consumer applications such as driverless cars and health and fitness monitors will naturally grab all the headlines. 

The application of IoT

When discussing the available applications, most people think immediately of domestic appliances connected to a smartphone such as Google Nest and the British Gas Hive system, or internet-connected devices such as Amazon Dash buttons, and Xerox self-service print machines in Staples retail stores. Soon, just about any physical object that can be connected to the internet will be. 

There are of course also incredibly sophisticated applications found within the IIoT sector that marry connectivity machine-to-machine – commonly referred to as M2M.     

Professional services firm PwC estimates that by 2020, out of a total of about 50-100 billion devices that will be connected to the internet – including tablets, smartphones, etc – there will be 30 billion connected ‘things’. Many of these devices and ‘things’ will be ubiquitous in the workplace and, in short, will alter the way we all work – from time, resources and innovative opportunities, to the use of data and analytics. 

But there’s more to IoT than just things, especially for the business supplies industry. The IoT will influence every part of the industry and is already having an effect on manufacturers, wholesalers, resellers and customers. PwC expects IoT to be the biggest driver of productivity and growth over the next ten years, with most devices being sensor-based. Delivery vehicles, white goods, clothes, anything that can have a sensor attached or built-in, will do.

IoT in the workplace

You would have to had your head buried in the sand not to have noticed the dramatic changes already taking place within the workplace, and IoT is certainly playing its part. In what is now the third wave of the internet, IoT is modifying the way the office is being designed, utilised, and the way that workers interact within the environment. 

As businesses seek to implement office-based IoT, there will be an increasing need to deploy intelligent devices such as smartphones and TVs to lighting and window coverings, for example. 

It will become the norm for products we can’t even begin to imagine right now to monitor, assess, scrutinise and optimise the world around us. 

Louella Fernandes, Principal Analyst at business and IT advisory firm Quocirca, points out that connected smart devices represent a growing opportunity in the workplace as IoT capabilities are extended to office products that have long relied on scheduled or routine maintenance.  

There’s a huge opportunity for the OP industry to be leaders in IoT in terms of supplying the right products for the workplace, but it is going to require a change in mindset and a broadening of category horizons. For now, this is an opportune moment to introduce customers to existing products – think appliances such as smart refrigerators, for example, that can automatically order breakroom snacks and beverages when supplies are running low. 

The IoT frees the world from the restrictions of only being able to access data and information via PCs, tablets and phones, and extends it to just about anything. The smart workplace uses beacons, sensors and cameras operational in offices to allocate available meeting room space, adjust window coverings to create ambient temperature and light settings, assign employee seating, monitor and adjust air conditioning and heating, and automatically call for janitorial services to clean the washroom.

From a facilities management point of view, the office environment has now become a wealth of information as sensors constantly send streams of data that can help manage an entire building, right down to individual rooms. 

Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP), for example, recently announced a smart washroom system that harnesses the M2M connectivity of the IoT. In addition to signalling whether dispensers need refilling, KCP’s Onvation Technology provides real-time data with analytics and insights through a web-based dashboard. KCP North America Marketing and Sales Leader Terry Sanchez says: “Buildings today are smarter than ever with sensors and software managing everything from lighting and security to HVAC systems and more.”

On a more personal note, the increase in interest in wellness in the office will boost the use of health monitors while sensors built into office chairs will send information to automatically adjust the seat for a better posture. 

While all this may seem futuristic, it’s already being implemented and it will keep growing. Wearables, for example, will become increasingly important in the coming years as millennials take over the workforce and the use of such technology becomes standard. 

Office furniture vendors have been incorporating connectivity into products for some time. DAMS Furniture Managing Director Chris Scott told OPI that many of its desk ranges feature integrated power management with plans to incorporate Bluetooth speakers in its meeting pods. 

Meanwhile, global office furniture manufacturer Steelcase has announced it is to develop technology-enabled workplace solutions built on Microsoft Azure IoT technology. As part of the deal, the software giant is planning to bring in Steelcase dealers as authorised Surface Hub resellers.

Manoeuvring into this space and carving out a reputation now is probably a wise move, as there are already vendors, wholesalers and large resellers active in the world of IoT. Amazon made a splash back in March 2015 when it launched the Dash button in the US – and other locations since – which enables one-click ordering at the push of button. In addition, the Amazon Dash Replenishment System allows automatic ordering to be built into products. A good illustration of this is the integration of DRS into select Samsung printers which order new cartridges automatically through Amazon when they sense that the toner is running low. 

Business benefits

IoT is not only rapidly changing and broadening the list of products available, but dealers can certainly take advantage of the benefit of utilising IoT within their own business. According to Gartner’s Harness IoT Innovation to Generate Business Value, these can range from operational improvements such as predictive maintenance, to digital transformation including selling product usage ‘as-a-service’. 

IoT-connected devices provide masses of data that can be analysed for detailed insights which can then be used to streamline business processes, make better strategic decisions, increase productivity and sales, and shape the future of the business in terms of customer relationships. They can help make businesses more competitive and agile and enable dealers to respond more quickly to customer demands and changing market conditions. 

Gartner analyst Chet Geschickter points out that the adoption of IoT is becoming “widespread and profound with competitors, suppliers and partners all adopting IoT in various formats. So too are customers”. Interestingly, this is leading to what the research company terms “things as customers” – an order may come from a ‘thing’ that requests new supplies for a printer, for example, or could be something requested by Amazon DRS or Dash. Gartner adds this is a “transformation, not an incremental adjustment”.

To deal with this evolution, OP industry players will also need to re-adjust internal systems to deal with smart devices – and not people – ordering products. Gartner points out: “Connected things will disrupt not only day-to-day customer engagement but also entire customer-facing business models.”

Streamlining the supply chain

The ‘revolution’ of the entire OP supply chain due to the IoT is no different to what every other industry is experiencing. Fact tank The Pew Center found that by 2025 there will be a huge improvement in manufacturing productivity at every stage as supply chain logistics become coordinated. Meanwhile, IoT will enable business supplies dealers to add ‘as-a-service’ to their repertoire for the maintenance and upgrading of IoT things and applications. 

Within the next three years, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, the adoption of big data analytics by UK businesses is expected to rise to 67%, while the adoption of IoT is expected to increase to 43%. 

With the continued rise of IoT in businesses across all industries, the time now is ripe to start investigating and investing in the systems and products available, with the understanding that IoT is only at the beginning of what it’s expected to achieve within the next few years. 

Quocirca’s Fernandes says that to capitalise on the IoT opportunity in the office products space, resellers will need to leverage the wealth of data that is generated from sensor-based smart devices. “This may mean working with a customer or manufacturer to leverage a platform that handles the data analysis and reporting. The opportunities for incremental revenue are significant, particularly as they help strengthen longer-term customer relationships,” she adds.

There’s still much to be done, however, in terms of standardising hardware, software and creating a common IoT ‘language’. Equally important will be the creation of standards that enable the billions of devices to integrate and communicate with each other reliably and on a secure basis. They will also need to ensure data privacy and security both internally and externally.   

A quote in the opening welcome to IoT Executive Handbook by Telit Communications founder and CEO Oozi Cats sums up the extraordinary time we find ourselves in: “From a strategic perspective, the fast rise of the Internet of Things is a veritable ‘black swan’, an unexpected event of enormous reach and consequence. It comes with the redistribution of the pieces on the global chessboard and is igniting a transformation whose results we cannot even begin to predict. And to be quite honest – isn’t this wonderful?”