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Ethical AIoT versus AI for office renovations

June 27, 2023
The Artificial Intelligence of Things can provide greater insights to inform workplace redesigns than everyday artificial intelligence.

AI will improve our lives. AI will destroy us.

The office is dead. Long live the office.

Depending on what you read and when, AI will—or won’t—be the end of us as a civilization, and the traditional office will—or will not—be where we work. What do these seemingly disparate notions have in common?

Quite a bit. They are top of mind for the workforce today. They take an all-or-nothing view on the foundations that shape how we work today and in the future. And they need to co-exist for our economy to thrive in boom times and survive in difficult ones. This article isn’t about using AI to get work done faster. Rather, it’s about using AI—and more specifically AIoT (the Artificial Intelligence of Things)—better to shape the office of the future.

Here’s a common scenario. An employer takes an employee poll to figure out the best hybrid work policy. Instead of accurately reflecting how the employees work, the responses align with how the employees want their supervisors to see them while also preserving their own interests.

This article isn’t about using AI to get work done faster. Rather, it’s about using AI—and more specifically AIoT (the Artificial Intelligence of Things)—better to shape the office of the future.

For example, many employees will commit on paper to coming to the office Tuesday through Thursday to collaborate with their teams and for one-on-one meetings. The employer, anticipating an influx of workers midweek, will rearrange the office to make the most of the space. Because the pre-pandemic open office concept is all but extinct, the new office environment resembles a call center. Employees use apps to reserve hot desks and conference rooms.

Everything looks great until one day, the boss notices productivity is down. They look around and see open workstations, a team hovering outside a conference room waiting for one employee to finish their Zoom call, and disgruntled employee comments on Glassdoor about poorly structured hybrid work policies.

The solution, the employer believes, is to revisit their hybrid work policies: Figure out why people aren’t coming into the office on the days they had confirmed and why individuals are using conference rooms for focused work and collaborations via video conferencing.

It doesn’t take in-depth research to discover that the call-center setup is too noisy and that keeping everybody on the same schedule doesn’t reflect customer needs, unexpected deadlines, or the best utilization of the office space. 

When office retrofits go awry

The employer decides to redesign the office. They tap the expertise of architects, designers, and furniture manufacturers to create an office where employees want to be. Data from JLL shows that employers are spending between $220-$320 per square foot on office renovations.

Organizations that can’t afford to hire a design firm—and even some that can—turn to AI image generators for inspiration. They become mesmerized by the sleek, futuristic concepts that cobble together loungelike seating, bold colors, and funky lighting. However, they forget that AI-generated ideas are rarely rooted in reality. They don’t account for installation logistics or the risk that an existing design spun up by AI was an unproven concept or had resulted in a lawsuit due to structural issues.

Missing in many of these scenarios is evidence-backed research on how the space is actually being used, as opposed to assumptions or fleeting observations of in-person employee interactions and behavior.

Missing in many of these scenarios is evidence-backed research on how the space is actually being used, as opposed to assumptions or fleeting observations of in-person employee interactions and behavior.

This is where AIoT comes in. AIoT combines AI technologies and the internet of things (IoT) to deliver insights, such as how office space is used, beyond what the occupancy data and login records show. Employers can then use these insights to shape office layouts that align with the culture of the workforce, roles of individual employees, and the office location.

Remember the employee who was squatting in the conference room? Their actions can go unnoticed for months beyond the office gripe. However, an ethical use of AIoT, which captures data about space usage without identifying and tracking individuals, can give insight into employee presence and how a particular space is being used. Same goes for deciphering occupancy data. It matters less that employees are showing up; it’s more important to notice activities like team huddles or the classic chair roll in the bullpen. This often signals impromptu collaboration to discuss and refine ideas in a setting that can’t be recreated on video.

Applying ethical AIoT to office redesign

Ethical AIoT, the use of the artificial intelligence of things, guided by fundamental values including individual rights, privacy, nondiscrimination and non-manipulation, is critical for making buildings smarter to determine the best hybrid work policies.

When employees first started returning to the office, many companies began tracking badge swipes to see who was working when and how much space they needed. This limited view provides insight into who was in the office, but not their productivity. And tracking instead of trusting employees created feelings of unease.

AIoT can help record office space utilization without drilling down into individual employee activity. In this way, the office is analyzed as its own entity, separate from employees. The data helps employers figure out the right office layouts. As a bonus, they can also save energy by only conditioning the spaces in use.

Before investing in an office redesign, employers should know the following:

  • Foot traffic patterns, desk utilization, and the ratio of conference room areas versus focused work areas, by role and team.
  • Whether hot desking and hoteling are working. Employee-reserved spaces that are later abandoned may indicate workstations are not sufficiently equipped or are located in high traffic areas, forcing employees to covet conference rooms.
  • Virtual A/B experiments to simulate worker activity and patterns based on different office layouts based on insight into what designs foster the most productive and collaborative work environment.

A lot of costly guesswork is going into office retrofits due to assumptions about how employees work best and the misuse of AI to create one-size-fits-all plans. Instead, office renovations would benefit from a comprehensive understanding of how employees use a space. Ethical AIoT can capture this information without keeping tabs on individual workers while creating an office environment in which employees are productive, engaged, and collaborative.

Honghao Deng is the CEO and co-founder of Butlr.

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About the Author

Honghao Deng

Honghao Deng is the CEO and co-founder of Butlr. He earned a master’s degree in design technology with distinction at Harvard University. He formerly was a researcher at City Science Group, MIT Media Lab and named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum and a Forbes “30 Under 30.”

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