Written by VR Sani-Co
Technology at work has often been associated with frustration. With hundreds of pounds worth of computing power now fitting snugly in our pockets, dated workstations suffer by comparison. Yet a combination of hardware costs, retraining and the risk of obsolescence have often prevented timely upgrades, leaving many workplaces stuck in a largely non-digitised age.
The rise of phones and technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) allow facilities managers to circumvent this. Sensors can collect data passively, while functions such as booking or visitor reception can be divested to apps and other dedicated touchpoints. Analysing this usage data and applying it in intelligent ways can help to mould facilities around the user, spotting patterns that can have a drastic effect on wellbeing and happiness.
Automation is not a new concept, even in FM. Simple technologies like intruder alarms, automatic lights, and even automated vehicles have been doing manual jobs more efficiently or effectively for years. What’s changing is both the scale and interconnectivity of different devices.
An individual might phone catering from a meeting room to request snacks and drinks. In a static system, that request would be manually logged and processed, but the booking and the resource management sides exist separately to each other.
By digitising these processes, the data can exist contiguously and inform other decisions. You could book a room and refreshments ahead of time, which allows catering to deliver the order on time. Stocks are automatically updated and orders sent according to demand, and the cleaning rota is automatically amended to tidy up those last few prawn sandwiches.
The IoT meanwhile gives us the potential to install sensors for almost every occasion. These tiny devices have low power consumption and can operate using extremely low bandwidth, long distance wireless protocols. One wireless transmitter can cover a whole complex replete with obstacles, linking them all to a single, centralised network.
This combination of factors provides us with one thing in particular: data, and lots of it. Constant readings from a number of different devices can reveal new insights into how rooms and spaces are used. Not only can this help to manage services, it can also be used to optimise these spaces to improve user wellbeing. Data analytics can consider data from these devices in tandem, highlighting patterns and flagging up factors that may be related to one another.
Take a scenario in which all available meeting rooms are frequently booked. By looking at occupancy data from sensors, you might find that one room with the capacity for 12 people hosts an average of 6 people; allowing you to reallocate this space more effectively. Or a scenario in which rates of illness in one part of the building seem to be linked to heating system malfunctions, inadequate cleaning rotas, or other environmental factors.
Sensors can be used for any service or utility that is traditionally measured or quantified. You could use sensors to tell you when a soap dispenser is empty, or when an item in a warehouse or stockroom needs reordering. Eliminating the need for manual verification allows you to better allocate your human resources, and saves them from doing these menial jobs.
There’s an obvious usability benefit to making sure the soap is refilled, or that bins are emptied more efficiently. But less obvious improvements can have an equally tangible effect. Take sanitary bins, for instance: we’ve shown before that these are rarely supplied in an adequate quantity, and the flushing of sanitary products is a frequent cause of blockages.
Women are denied a basic sanitary requirement, which in turn causes more maintenance. Maintenance puts those bathrooms out of order – and women’s bathrooms are notoriously under-provided for in many public facilities. Yet businesses either aren’t aware of this chain of events, or aren’t willing to spend the money on installing the bins and adding to cleaning rotas.
Sensors can be deployed to alleviate this burden on cleaning staff, working them into a route which provides maximum efficiency. But sensors can also assist in areas which are less easily measured. It may not be possible (or at least desirable!) to measure the literal cleanliness of a bathroom. But sensors measuring footfall can estimate the need for expedited cleaning, and automatically adjust routines, or even ‘page’ staff via an app or proprietary alert system.
This digitisation of manual processes doesn’t just have to exist on the service side of management. The collected data can also be provided to users, as well as augmented by their input. Take for instance feedback on room conditions: ‘micro polling’ using a display or app can allow users to provide instant feedback, highlighting issues immediately for further investigation.
A booking system that collects and displays information on which rooms are available alleviates frustration, and saves time that would have been spent manually checking the room. Digital maps and signage can direct arriving visitors to the correct location, while parking sensors can direct people to the space nearest their eventual destination.
While this data is currently bound to screens, its application is flexible. A mobile app can tap into the same data and display it in a different way, prioritising visual elements and functionality over in-depth analysis. This flexibility allows individuals to take advantage of live information in a variety of contexts, whether they’re at their desk or rushing to take an urgent call.
There are also user experience factors which might show up in data, but not in polling. Background noise, lighting or room size are all factors which might not be consciously irritating enough to complain about, but could have a measurable impact on performance. This kind of data can be particularly helpful for analysing large structural or spatial changes, such as a shift to an open plan office or the introduction of sound walls.
The dawn of augmented reality (AR) meanwhile, where data is overlaid on the real world, could have exciting applications. The use of glasses such as Microsoft’s Hololens could show a cleaning route directly in front of you, or highlight the location of particular elements. Combining Building Information Modelling (BIM) with AR could potentially overlay a map of resources such as pipes and cables on the walls for maintenance, or a cleaning route for external contractors.
As much as anything else, the increasing power of personal computing and phones has made people more aware of the ways technology can boost efficiency. When businesses fail to catch up and implement similar solutions, it can create extra frustration. Polling users is always the first step, but the rise of sensors brings a wealth of useful new information.
Logging usage data can only get you so far, and the basis of improving the user experience should always involve consultation. But the digitisation of processes like room booking and cleaning improve efficiency directly and indirectly, saving resources and frustration. Employees feel the improvement in the short term, and the FM can apply the data to changing rooms and best practices for long term gain.