How to Setup a Smart Office: a Pragmatic Approach
Let’s get started…
If you’re thinking about turning your office into a smart office, this article will guide you through a pragmatic approach to getting it done.
Make a List
Before you purchase a single item, decide what you want to do. Create a wish list. Try not to think in terms of technology but in terms of what you want to achieve. Are there things that you want to fix or improve? What are the practical necessities? What are your “wow” factor items?
Lighting plays an important role in setting the office atmosphere. Do you have plenty of natural light? Do you have too much of it? Do you want lighting to react to the weather? Do you want lighting to react to you, and how do you want to interact with it? Do you want lighting on a schedule? Do you want to add color?
Do you need to manage temperatures closely or do you want a system that learns and responds to your routines? Are there areas of your office that are either too cold or too hot when the rest of your office is just right? Do you want to be able to monitor temperatures and make changes when you are away?
How do you use multimedia in your workplace? Music, video, news, television, video conferencing, gaming, what are the multimedia elements that will make the greatest impact on your employees, your customers and your business?
Do you want a virtual assistant to take notes, send messages, manage your daily schedule, help with travel plans, order office supplies or gifts for customers? Virtual assistants are here and when programmed in accordance with their strengths and your needs, they can perform routine tasks for you that can free you from some of the minutiae while empowering you to handle the important stuff. Make a list of things you do repeatedly throughout the day or the things that you do once in a blue moon that you don’t quite remember the details for. These are the types of things a Virtual Assistant can handle for you with ease.
Security, Alarms & Monitoring
Have you thought about replacing pin tumbler lock keys with a system where you no longer need to worry about losing keys or having them cut, and where you can easily add and remove access privileges with the added benefit of being able to log all activity?
Do you want to view the office while you are away?
Do you need to know the humidity is just right and be notified when it’s not?
Do you want to be alerted in case of flooding?
What about temperature alerts and remote temperature control?
Do you want to capture and record activities that happen outside of business hours?
The list of things to do can go on and on. Take the time upfront, be detailed, define specifics. Be pragmatic but also be imaginative. Even if you think it isn’t possible, include it on your list.
Choose Your Virtual Assistant
At this stage in the process, you can’t know which is the right option to meet all or most of the items on your wish list, but making this decision early on quickly focuses your search. At this point, the decision is really a matter of preference. You may end up needing to change options later, and that’s OK. Here are some of the things to consider when comparing which digital assistant is best for you and your business.
Amazon’s Alexa may be the best all-around solution today for the smart office. Choose Amazon if you want anyone on your team to be able to use voice commands. Amazon just listens for the wake word, no matter who says it. Amazon’s solution is extremely versatile and compatible across a broad range of devices and services. With an Amazon Prime business account, you have tons of features including free music and video, product discounts, free shipping, integrated purchasing system, etc… Amazon has arguably the best voice recognition system and paired with its Echo product line, it makes for the best and most versatile office solution. Echo dots are inexpensive and can be placed in strategic locations to make interacting with the system effortless.
Google Home is another excellent solution and is very similar to Amazon’s. It has broad device and service compatibility, excellent voice recognition also paired with various and economical Google Home, Mini and Max options. Because of Google’s search engine, Google Home is excellent at providing information. If you already use Gmail as your business email solution, Google Home will compliment nicely.
Siri is also a promising solution, but it is quite different than Amazon and Google. If you are already in the Apple ecosystem, Siri is a great option as it, for the most part, relies on your iPhone and/or iPad(s) to communicate. The “Hey Siri” command is specific to the individual and not receptive to anyone who speaks it. There are positive and negative aspects of this for the office environment. It means anyone who will be able to speak to the system, needs a device and an AppleID/account that is incorporated into the system. This is not hard to do, it is just very different from what Amazon and Google are doing. Apple has a broad but limited set of devices that are compatible with its HomeKit solution. Again this is good and bad. The bad is that you have fewer compatible devices to choose from and that the ones you can choose can have a slightly higher price tag. The good is that the devices are truly qualified, have an excellent standard of quality and are setup to encrypt all communications (something the other services do not do).
Unfortunately, Apple’s new HomePod does not provide the smart office functionality that the Echo or Google Home devices can. The HomePod is probably the best speaker on the market, but fails as a smart office hub. Apple TV also provides some of the centralized control functionality for the smart office, but again it falls short. Both the HomePod and the Apple TV are essentially extensions of the primary AppleID/iPhone account and are unable to identify multiple users.
If you live and breathe Apple products, Siri is a viable option, but if you’re not already in the Apple ecosystem, you should probably start with one of the other options.
I am giving a shout to the Mycroft solution here since this product does something quite unique. The premise of Mycroft’s solution is privacy. They recognize the other players have a vested interest in collecting consumer data. But like DuckDuckGo, Mycroft’s focus is on providing great user experiences while securing individual privacy. It is an open source technology and relies on both community development and funding. In terms of performance, Mycroft can’t compete with any of the big players, but they are making an impact in terms of both development and the dialogue surrounding AI, the big players, the end user and privacy. If you want to put some effort in towards the advancement of privacy in the world of AI and office automation, you may want to consider a solution like Mycroft.
You and your business’s privacy should always be considered when evaluating new technologies and services. All of the virtual assistants mentioned above and most, if not all, of the device manufacturers described below, send your information across the internet, process it and in most cases even store it. It’s the nature of modern computing. For example, if set for voice activation, all virtual assistants are always listening, always. Only when the wake word is uttered, do the services start to process and record (as all providers claim). The commands following the wake word(s) are sent over the internet to be processed by the service provider’s computers. From there, actions are made or messages are relayed to third-parties such as Leviton’s cloud to process the lighting adjustment request. There is a lot to say about privacy. See our article Virtual Assistants – How Do They Handle Your Privacy? that focuses specifically on how different vendors handle your data.
Choose Your Protocol(s)
WiFi is unequivocally our protocol of choice for most device connections. Even light bulbs are equipped with tiny WIFI receivers. We all know what WiFi is and use it every day. We recommend you try to limit your smart office build to use strictly WiFi capable devices. You will most likely have to incorporate other protocols to achieve everything you want to do, but making this choice, will simplify your solution and help you sort through myriad of options.
Zigbee is a radio frequency, low-power, mesh network protocol. It was developed in the 1990’s. It was adopted early on for use with 1st gen thermostats, light switches, door locks, etc… It is still used today and is the protocol used by Phillips for its Hue lighting system.
Z-Wave is another radio frequency protocol similar to Zigbee that was developed in 2001 and has been used during the early stages of smart home development. It is in regular use.
Insteon is also radio frequency protocol that employs a dual-mesh networking topology. It was developed by Smartlabs in 2005. Like Zigbee and Z-Wave, Insteon is a relevant protocol in the smart home line-up.
Bluetooth is a short-range (10m) wireless protocol that we regularly use to connect our smartphones and their accessories. Like WiFi, Bluetooth is ubiquitous.
Infrared is a simple and reliable protocol. It is what your TV and its remote use to communicate. If you are incorporating TV’s, amplifiers, projectors and other remote controlled media devices into your smart office, you will most likely be obliged to incorporate an infrared component.
X10 relies on power line wiring and is one of the first home automation protocols that was started back in the 1970’s. There is an argument for wired connections, but… X10 served its purpose back in the day, but today there isn’t much need for it. Sorry X10 lovers.
As you research the devices you’ll use, try to minimize the number of protocols you will need. Start with WiFi enabled devices and add one or two more as may be required. The fewer protocols you use, the easier time you’ll have getting everything to work together. Part of your goal is to get everything managed under one roof, when possible.
Choose Your Devices
By now you have a top-level view of what you want to achieve and you can start figuring out what pieces you will need to complete the puzzle. As you approach this, you’ll want to try to keep your end-result simple. Ideally you will want to be able to control the entirety of your smart office using your virtual assistant and its related app. You also want to look for brand name products. Smart devices are more complicated and you want a reliable manufacturer who stands behind their products and uses quality designs and materials.
Lights can be controlled by the bulb, by the wall switch or by an outlet. Each option has its place. If you have multiple lights on a switch, use a smart wall switch. If you have a single bulb fixture with inadequate wiring or if you want to add varying colors to your design, then you are looking at smart bulbs. Smart outlets work well for lamps.
Look for lighting products from name brand manufactures. The Philips Hue system is one of the best options available if you are looking at incorporating color into your setup, but this option requires a Philips Hue Gateway. Sylvania and Ikea are also making excellent quality bulbs. There are a few up-and-coming brands to also watch: Koogeek, TP-Link and Eufy are all good companies looking to get some traction in the smart lighting market.
Smart bulbs are predominately LED. If you are switching from incandescent you’re dropping from bulbs averaging 60W to ones averaging 8W. This is great for the pocket book and for the environment. If you’re switching from fluorescent, then you will enjoy a much better quality of light.
Lutron and Leviton are brand name wall switch makers who are modernizing their products for the smart home. Where companies Koogeek and Elagato are new companies developing their brands around the concept of smart devices.
Add motion sensors, if you want your lighting to be more interactive.
In addition to thermostats, you may want to consider incorporating various sensors to better monitor and control temperature and humidity in different areas of your office. There are sensors for CO2 and smoke detection, flood detection, air quality, doors and windows and, of course, motion.
Smart locks, cameras and alarm systems are great ways to secure and keep tabs on your office from any location. With the careful implementation of smart locks, you never have to worry about keys falling into the wrong hands, having new keys made or having them returned when an employee moves on. Smart lock permissions are individually based and can be added or revoked at will. Access controls can be limited to specific times and all entries are logged. Again look for name brand manufacturers who you trust.
Camera systems are great way to provide evidence to the authorities and often help in identifying and capturing perpetrators.
Any of the security options can be setup to alarm you and your team in real time. If you get a window sensor alarm in the middle of the night, the cameras will capture any activity in the office. You can safely monitor what is happening from your smart phone as the authorities are notified.
Incorporating multi-media into your smart office build is a great way to add a little sparkle. Sound system options are abundant: Sonos, Bose, Homepod, etc… And whether you want to video conference, make presentations, watch movies, or do some gaming, there is no shortage of video presentation devices from wall-sized touch screen displays to ceiling mounted projectors.
There are more and more smart devices that are hitting the market. Here are some samples:
Coffee makers and espresso machines
Potted plant irrigation
Corral Your Devices
Now you that you have a sense what protocols you’ll need, it’s time to choose a hub to centralize management. If you’re able to go completely WiFi, then there is a good chance that you can simply use Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home or your Apple device and forego a hub and skip on down to the next section. Otherwise, you want to select a hub that will work with all of your devices as well as with your voice command solution. Here is a quick comparison:
IFTTT, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Nest, Alexa, Philips Hue, Honeywell
Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, Lutron Clear Connect, Kidde, Thread, Alexa, Google Home
Z-Wave, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Alexa, Google Home
Wi-FI, IR, Bluetooth, Alexa, Google Home
Script the Action and Write the Dialogue
Now that you have decided what you want to do, chosen your Virtual Assistant and selected your devices and connected everything, it’s time to create the working environment.
Using your wish list to guide you, identify and group devices, create various “scenes”, actions and automations. There are many out-of-the-box settings you can incorporate or that you can use to build upon. Taking some time to be thorough and to configure automation at the beginning will make your smart office experience all the richer.
Next, teach your Virtual Assistant what is important to you. Your Virtual Assistant will have many default commands that it will understand and be able execute, but a Virtual Assistant will be able to do a lot more for you better, if you take the time to craft and train your Virtual Assistant on useful dialogue. You can define how you name devices, rooms, groups and actions and you can script the dialogue that your Virtual Assistant will follow. Not only can this prove to be a creative and fun endeavor, but it will help your Virtual Assistant to execute commands with more exactness.
If This Then That (IFTTT)
If you’re not already overwhelmed by the possibilities and still want to do more, then you can use the IFTTT service with any of the above solutions to further customize your smart office and automation. IFTTT is a free online service that allows you to create simple conditional statements that can be used to string together different devices, conditions and actions. It is a bit complicated, but it’s not rocket science. With IFTTT you can explore and select from one of the thousands of pre-made applets in the IFTTT collection, or you can construct your own making the possibilities for your office automation to be nearly boundless.
Once your smart office is setup. Encourage your team to both use it but to improve it. A smart office should change with your needs and develop as you learn how to get more out of it and as the technologies evolve.