Steelcase launches IoT, smart office analytics platform with Microsoft Azure

Steelcase's foray into the data science behind the office revolves around a sensor network and analytics to measure real estate and physical space utilization and then optimize it.

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Office furniture maker Steelcase plans to embed sensors in the workplace to analyze real estate utilization and optimize space to improve productivity.

The move, enabled by Microsoft's Azure Internet of things platform, is another example of digital transformation and how multiple sectors are becoming technology-enabled. Steelcase is aiming to transition from an office product company to one centered around workplace productivity.

Steelcase's move -- the launch of two software platforms Workplace Advisor and Personal Assistant -- also highlights the emerging smart office trends. Enterprises are likely to turn their attention to upgrading office technology now that they've revamped various spaces with open floor plans, collaborative areas, and huddle rooms.

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Microsoft and Steelcase executives will outline the connected workplace platform at the software giant's Ignite 2017 conference in Orlando.

For Steelcase, Workplace Advisor and Personal Assistant represent new product lines and revenue streams, according to CIO Terry Lenhardt. Lenhardt explained that people and real estate are among a company's biggest expenses and physical space is an asset that's rarely optimized: "Real estate and technology assets aren't optimized. We can use data to drive a better experience to help measure performance and improve employee potential," said Lenhardt.

For instance, Steelcase found that 42 percent of employees say it's difficult to do creative work in their office and cite lack of privacy and uninspired surroundings. In addition, 46 percent of an office may go unused as employees look for better areas to get work done.

"We start from the question of how can we help companies and their employees have an optimal day at work," Lenhardt said.

Steelcase collaborated on the workplace IoT network and analytics tools with Microsoft. The software giant is also using the Steelcase-Microsoft platform to better utilize and analyze its Redmond campus, which has 160 buildings and 500 acres.

Sam George, director of Microsoft Azure IoT, said the Steelcase effort will provide enterprises with a baseline to know what workplace productivity looks like. From there, companies can use data science to redesign workspaces and cater to various work styles.

As for the return on investment from the Steelcase software, Lenhardt noted that enterprises will be able to have more data to guide them on expansion or contraction plans for real estate. Better utilization means lower real estate expenses.

Lenhardt said Steelcase has piloted its Workplace Advisor and Personal Assistant software at its Manhattan experience center. The software revolves around a service subscription, a network of optimized sensors and hardware and an ongoing subscription for analytics.

In the future, Microsoft and Steelcase executives said these physical space analytics could be mashed up with data from back-office financial systems. Steelcase has a data science team that co-designed the product with Microsoft, which processes the streaming data through its Azure cloud.

Here's a look at the two Steelcase tools.

Workplace Advisor is a space sensing network built on Azure. The system collects anonymous data to outline how people work and how spaces are performing. Steelcase analyzes the data and offers insights on changes that can be made to optimize the workspace. The tool also automatically cancels no-show conference room reservations and uses algorithms to highlight issues and correct them.

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Personal Assistant is an app that combines Office 365 and analytics to be a concierge to find people, places, and meeting areas. Personal Assistant also recommends what areas are best for a task.

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