Published: September 9, 2020
Building on successful use cases of IoT in manufacturing and front-line work, while leveraging other hardware in novel ways, will make it easier for companies to support workers who will remain remote or distributed, while helping them create a safer environment for in-office employees to return to. Although these technologies and projects are in the early stages, they could help accelerate the transition to the new normal if properly leveraged. However, key challenges and concerns must be addressed first.
The 451 Take
The New Normal
First, the physical work environment will be more distributed than it was in the past. In our Voice of the Enterprise: Digital Pulse, Coronavirus Flash Survey June 2020, we asked respondents to note which of the policies or procedures that they had put in place to combat COVID-19 would remain in place long term or permanently. The top response, at 67%, was expanded or universal work-from-home policies. Some two-thirds of companies will be embracing mass-scale remote work for a long time. From that same question, 42% said they're keeping travel limitations or bans in place long term or permanently, and 32% said the same about in-person or face-to-face meetings.
Additionally, 47% of those surveyed said that their company was planning to reduce its physical office size to some degree in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. While some companies are allowing employees to return to the office already, which we will discuss later in this report, it's important to note how big the impact will be to physical work environments.
Despite this impact, 42% of respondents said their digital transformation projects are continuing on their original timeline, and 21% said they were actually accelerated, according to our 2020 Digital Pulse survey. Some 30% of IoT projects are continuing on schedule, while 6% had been accelerated by COVID-19, according to those same respondents. Despite the physical disruption, the pandemic has catalyzed important technology projects.
Remote work will be a major part of the new normal, and IoT will help enable remote work productivity and collaboration across multiple industries. In areas like manufacturing and agriculture, IoT will help keep maintenance and management remote, since it provides the data needed to effectively do most of these jobs. This is where the notion of working on a digital twin comes to the fore.
While not a tightly defined term, digital twin refers to a digital representation of something physical. It is used to run what-if simulations, or can simply be an instance of a virtual control room to understand and adjust what is going on in a process such as manufacturing. Without the need to manually inspect equipment regularly, there can be fewer people on the manufacturing floor or in the fields, and workers can more effectively maintain social distancing.
For other workers outside of an office, sensors and wearables can be used to intelligently manage and schedule a workforce. An example of this is Over-C, which uses IoT and productivity analytics to dynamically staff employees as needed to perform work 'just in time.' A use case for this technology is to send cleaning crews to train platforms right before their arrival, so employees don't waste time on a platform that may be waiting on a delayed train. This improves efficiency and productivity – leading to fewer people in work environments – but also could be used for social distancing if employees could be assigned to different regions of a train platform, for example.
Augmented reality (AR), which 451 Research considers the UI for IoT, and virtual reality (VR) have significant use cases for a front-line workforce. VR can be used for training, gaining situational awareness of new locations, developing muscle memory, and practicing maintenance and engineering tasks. AR offers a front-line engineer the chance to engage with a remote expert to annotate and guide them through a process that they may have previously worked closely together on to achieve. It is also used to record in place detailed 3-D work instructions to allow the engineer to operate independently, with many systems utilizing AI techniques to ensure they receive the correct data at the right time, or can query and adjust.
For traditional office workers, AR and VR can be used to make meetings more varied and personal. Video works well for a few people, but it can be difficult to maintain eye contact, or know when it's your turn to speak. Traditional audio conference calls do not have the eye contact issue, but can lead to not everyone being able to say their piece. VR tools help with this, adding context to the meetings when employees are working from home.
Typically, in VR or AR, an avatar is used to represent a participant, offering individual agency and control but removing the pressure of having to be on camera. This then provides more opportunities to vary the location of virtual meetings, offering differentiation and contextual awareness, and avoiding the burnout that many have felt this year around nearly identical video conference calls. Wearables, also, offer an opportunity to improve employee engagement, by measuring heart rate and stress levels for employees working at home or in a new remote environment.
In our Voice of the Enterprise: Workforce Productivity & Collaboration, Work Execution Goals & Challenges research from 2020, we asked survey respondents about the increased challenges they faced due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The second-highest response (30%) was working from home with family also there. The third-highest response (24%) was challenges in focusing, due to anxiety about the impacts of the outbreak. Helping employees mitigate this stress and overcome their anxiety will be a critical way organizations can support their people, and IoT wearables may help employees understand their stress, or can be used to prompt time off and more.
Returning to the Office, Floor or Field
According to our VoTE: Digital Pulse, Coronavirus Flash Survey June 2020, 30% of organizations are already allowing employees to work from the office, and 19% plan on doing so as soon as their local regulations allow. With that said, many organizations are working under altered conditions including enforced social distancing, mandatory PPE, enhanced cleaning and more. In fact, 14% said these altered working conditions represent permanent changes to their organization, although 7% aren't operating under any altered conditions at all.
Let's start by thinking about the largest challenge for office work: social distancing. Some 79% of respondents to our Digital Pulse survey agreed that maintaining proper social distancing would be the biggest challenge to resuming normal operations at work. IoT can help here because internet-connected cameras can be used with software to show if employees are maintaining required distance. Cameras with proper machine vision support can even tell managers if an employee is or isn't wearing their PPE. This makes it easier to manage employees with new policies in place.
Wearables are another IoT device, which can be used to detect the device's distance from another wearable, and beep or vibrate if employees get too close to one another. Of course, wearables could also be used to record temperature, and grant or deny building access to employees based on their reading.
Edge IoT platforms like FogHorn, designed for machine-learning applications on machinery, are also being used to detect body temperatures, face masks or social distancing by running directly on compute resources embedded in cameras. The platform can be used to keep a door closed to an employee who isn't wearing a mask or who has a fever. The company also supports microphone use for detection of cough frequency. And as we recently wrote, IBM's Watson Works is combining Maximo asset management, TRIREGA building management and healthcare case management with Watson Care Manager to aid the return to work.
Both point products and larger integrated programs will end up being used in a variety of ways as companies transition back to in-office/in-factory work, helping organizations maintain compliance and keep the workplace open.
Challenges and Concerns
Organizations looking to pursue an IoT strategy to support their post-COVID-19 transition must do so with caution. Whenever personal data is at stake, privacy and security must be a top concern. It's OK to mandate certain practices as necessary for working in the office, but nuance is required.
For example, cameras must not be used to spy on employees to make sure they're at their desks. Nor should other sensors be used to punish odd working hours or different approaches to productivity. The steps being put in place relate to employee and customer health records – so as various risk factors are discovered, the technology should not be used to discriminate against groups of people. When it comes to wearables and remote-work IoT, these programs and/or tools should be opt in, rather than mandated, for employees who want to maintain their health or measure output.
A tradeoff between privacy and public health would appear to be a sensible route to take, but once the public health issue is resolved or improves drastically, it can be very hard to remove some of these systems. In the wrong hands, or with a change of use case, it could result in an even more dystopian workplace than that caused by the pandemic.
Conner Forrest is a Senior Research Analyst with the Workforce Productivity & Collaboration team at 451 Research, a part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. His areas of focus are content management, HR tech and corporate performance management.