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Office workers are Increasingly finding themselves surrounded by smart technology in the workplace. High-tech access control systems, personalized environmental controls, even circadian lighting systems that mimic the rhythms of the sun to support better health and wellbeing. However, the vast mojority of office workers spend their days sitting at dumb old workstations made of four legs and a plank of wood. It seems as though, in this new age of technology, it is about time we had smarter desks.

A number of workplace technology researchers are now switching their focus to this pressing issue with the aim of dragging our old fashioned desks into the 21st century. One such researcher is Burcin Becerik-Gerber, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. Becerik-Gerber and her graduate students have teamed up with global engineering firm Arup https://www.arup.com/ to create intelligent workstations that will keep pace with their increasingly smart surroundings.

Becerik-Gerber’s research focuses specifically on what she calls “human-building interactions,” in a similar way that we describe “human-computer interactions.” Her work includes a range of technology such as environmental controls linked to smart HVAC systems and anything that impacts the safety, security, health or well-being of building occupants. “I tend to see buildings as the machines. I try to understand how and why people interact with their buildings,” said Becerik-Gerber in an interview with VentureBeat earlier this month.

“People’s happiness is very important for me. I always argue that you can make buildings energy-efficient just by taking everything out and making everyone in them miserable. That’s very energy-efficient,” she points out. “So that’s not my purpose. The center of the research for us is users. How can I make people happier and more satisfied?”.

Becerik-Gerber was inspired to address these issues after years spent working in an uncomfortable office herself. “I was so miserable in my office. It was always cold. The lighting was horrible. I thought, My God, I spend so much time in here, and it’s the same no matter who’s sitting here. It doesn’t care if it’s me or anyone else,” she explained. Newer, so-called smart buildings, give her an altogether different kind of frustration, “They’re annoying to me, quite honestly. They turn off things when you don’t want them to, and you wind up waving your hands or jumping up and down. The blinds are constantly closing and opening in the background.”

With 80 million office workers in the US alone, these kinds of grievances are not just annoying, they are causing discomfort and distraction, thereby reducing productivity on a massive scale. The solution must involve technology that can better understand the user, and technology that can give office workers control of the environment directly around where they spend the vast majority of their day. That is why Becerik-Gerber sees the desk as central to the solution and has begun to build a prototype to show what might be possible.

“The [prototype] desk as we have it now attends to thermal comfort, visual comfort, and postural comfort. It has sit-stand, which isn’t new, but the idea is – this is the new part of it, not just the sensors or modeling of preferences or learning the user. Once it learns you and knows what you’re doing, there’s the ideal or the optimal or the healthiest regimen,” she said. “How does a regular object negotiate over time and co-evolve with its user to make the user healthier and more productive? This is the whole idea. It’s not just the sensing.”

The desk she envisions will sense your posture to ensure you’re not in an unhealthy position for long periods, for example, it can then rectify the issue by identifying whether the chair or desk height need to be adjusted, or the keyboard moved. It can tell how long you’re sitting and how long you’re standing, as each can be unhealthy in excess. “We’re thinking around the desk and the chair, the work station. This is going to be the space,” says Becerik-Gerber, “the idea is using multiple data points and pulling them together to make sense of everything.”

Becerik-Gerber and her team have the long-term aim of commercialization, supported by the fact that they have partnered with Arup, whose clients include Google, Facebook and other companies with significant office real estate. These are not the only ones in the process of developing smart desks, however, a number of teams are in advanced stages in this field. At the forefront, perhaps, is the partnership between co-working giant, WeWork, and retail behemoth, Amazon, who are developing what has been dubbed the “AI Desk.”

“At the convergence of AI and office furniture,” WeWork European Transactions Director Mary Finnigan set out, “we’ve developed the ability that as you approach your desk, the desk will recognize you via a phone app, will raise the desk to the right height, will know if you prefer standing or sitting desks, and will adapt the temperature or lighting according to how you customized the app.”

WeWork, who already have 283 sites in 24 countries and another 183 more in various stages of development, have teamed up with Amazon to embed the user’s personal Alexa AI into their workstations. ”It’s about customising spaces to suit our members, whilst recognizing that different people can come in and out of the space on a regular basis.” The project is said to already be in advanced testing phases among WeWork employees.

The traditional desk, however dumb it may now seem, has always been central to office work. Hotdesking and remote work may have changed how we see our own personal desks, but wherever someone settles to focus on work or study is fundamental to that activity, and by making that space smart we can support their productivity.

As smart buildings strive to gather more and more data on their occupants they would be wise to give more attention to the furniture that turns the empty building into an office, study room or other space. The desk, after all, holds huge amounts of valuable data and the ability to directly impact the health, wellbeing and productivity of building occupants.

“What’s exciting to me are the things we can’t see. How can we take all this data, all the charts, and understand what people are doing, what activities they’re undertaking, how much energy they’re using, and what they want to do, what their preferences are? How can we get them to better practices? All these things, we can’t see. They’re all algorithms and different levels of intervention,” highlights Becerik-Gerber envisioning the desks of the future.