On average people spend a third of their time at work so it figures that innovation in the workplace will have a big impact on our lives.

Whether it helps them get more done, improves health and well-being, enhances communication or cuts costs, research and development (R&D) to improve the office worker’s experience hints at a constant march of progress. But is the future of R&D in the workplace all rosy?

We take a look at the R&D that is going on in five distinct areas of office life that will change the way we work.

1. R&D in modern office building design

The term ‘office worker’ implies that the employee is in an office. However, as other technologies that we look at show us, this is becoming less necessary (unless enforced, as happened at Yahoo!). Flexible working patterns are common. In the future, will there be any need to work from a company office at all?

With one of the key benefits of people working in the same location being the power of collaboration, companies have a strong motivation to make their buildings desirable places to spend time.

For a long while, tech companies have taken a lead in inspiring us with their innovative workplaces. And the trickle down of fun, vibrant buildings has reached many other sectors. But the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook are taking it to the next level.

Apple’s amazing new office

Apple, for instance is drawing near the end of a $5 billion (that’s not a typo) spend on its new Apple 2 Campus – AKA the Spaceship Campus.

The site covers 176 hectares and will house 13,000 Apple employees in one building. This has been designed by London based Foster + Partners who can boast Wembley Stadium, the McLaren Technology Centre and the HSBC HQ at Canary Wharf as past successes. Take a building this size, and add Apple and that is going to equal tonnes of innovation.

There is a huge scope for innovative workplace design for R&D tax credits purposes. One area will include how a building caters to environmental needs – so relevant to us all at this time.  For instance, Apple’s building includes design features that mean air conditioning and heating will not be required for 75% of the time due to clever venting.

This will help them achieve their aim that the campus be 100% self-sustaining. Other elements of this green brief include that the entire roof is composed of solar panels, there will be an on-site low carbon Central Plant and recycled water will be used. Apple even demonstrated that no dirt was removed when preparing the vast site.

Taking these as examples for UK based projects, depending on how such initiatives are developed within a project (for instance whether they are bespoke or off the shelf solutions), they may well qualify for R&D tax credits.

This drone footage of the building site shows the scale of the work going on.

Other innovative tech offices

Tech is a sector where there is strong competition for the best human talent, and so flagship offices which showcase a company’s innovation are a good way to appeal to the latest batch of PHDs. Competing with Apple on this front is Google with a new Googleplex, Amazon who are creating a ‘glass biospheres’ HQ in Seattle. And Facebook has created the largest open plan office in the world which happens to have a 9-acre park on its roof. As with its software, Facebook wants its new office to connect people.

This article on the BBC website speculates that wearable technology will play an interesting role in the future of worker interaction with their office. We agree and this sounds like a fantastic area of innovation as the worlds of wearable tech and modern architecture collide.

2. Virtual reality in the workplace

For a long time, Virtual Reality (VR) has been a disappointment. It has been touted as the next big thing several times only to provide an underwhelming experience. Things started to change in 2014 when Facebook purchased VR company Oculus Rift for $2 billion. That is, after all, serious money. Even then, the common perception rarely stretched beyond gaming. However, people are starting to think about virtual reality in the workplace.

Imagine, for instance, its potential as a replacement for the conference call. Instead of talking to a small machine in the centre of the boardroom table or staring at the camera on your laptop, you could slip on a headset and feel you are in the same room as your colleagues – whether they are in a different building, city, country or continent.

Or, how about as a training tool? VR could provide businesses with a cost-effective way to train staff located on different sites in a virtual environment, making it more engaging and reducing the need to travel.

Another way that VR could be useful to the office worker is in design work. Just as 3D printing has revolutionised prototyping, virtual reality will afford architects, engineers and other design workers far more freedom in how they explore their creations in the early stages of design.

It’s not just in the office where VR may have an impact. Some more occupational sectors that could be revolutionised are explored here.

R&D in virtual reality
Given there have been so many false dawns with VR, it is unsurprising that there are numerous technological challenges to overcome when producing an effective VR device. The aim is to completely immerse the user in a virtual world, such that they can’t distinguish it from the real world. Here are some of the areas of R&D in VR:

  • Headset design – including how it hosts the screen, lens integration, field of view, what level of equipment it will hold, and ergonomics.
  • Motion tracking – particularly to track the movements of hands so they become part of the VR experience.
  • Eye tracking. Fove is pioneering this which allows focus of vision, use of eye contact with virtual characters and reduced simulation sickness.
  • Head tracking – this is making the use of an array of sensors like accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer so that you can realistically explore the virtual world by moving your head.
  • Sound integration – for instance, realistic 360-degree sound.

Will viable business use be the tipping point that finally sees VR emerge from the shadows?

3. Collaborative SaaS (Software as a Service) to assist office workers

We have already seen how the concept of collaboration is integral to the latest building design and virtual reality. There are a whole host of SaaS companies dedicated to helping teams better work together. These can include, for instance, CRM systems, accountancy packages, and project management tools to name a few.

Slack is a great example. This Silicon Valley start-up, co-founded by Brit Cal Henderson, has quickly achieved unicorn status. That is a start-up with a value of $1 billion. Slack is designed to replace email as a way that teams communicate and work together on projects.

The idea is that you create channels through which teams can message each other openly. Different channels can be set for projects, topics, teams or whatever you like, and everyone within that channel has easy access. If you need to talk privately to someone, you can do that too. Files can be attached. It integrates with other platforms and it efficiently archives conversations.

Producing SaaS products that you expect businesses around the world to entrust with their data and their operations is no easy task. Extensive research and development will go into user experience, architecture, robustness and APIs among many other things. And it is a cut throat world where continuous R&D is necessary to keep ahead of your rivals.

Will Facebook conquer the world of work?

Companies in this sector will be nervously looking at Facebook who are quietly going about trialling Facebook at Work – a business version of their platform that utilises its already popular messaging and newsfeed formats in a workplace context. RBS, with 100,000 employees is the largest company taking part in the trial.

They reported that it was a far more engaging way to work than traditional methods and inspired more creative idea generation. Regular users of Facebook (which is just about everyone!) will recognise posts, profiles photos, events and direct messaging as features so it is apparently easy to pick up. Despite the similarities, RBS prominently point out that the professional accounts were completely separate to personal Facebook accounts so there would be no issue around confidentiality and security. This is a vital consideration for any tech company hoping to persuade business to adopt its SaaS product.

4. R&D in cloud computing

SaaS collaborative tools are an important part of cloud computing, but there are many other ways that cloud computing is transforming the workplace. The biggest is in infrastructure and here there are three big (and familiar) names: Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

These companies provide remote processing power and storage on demand to businesses. It is pretty clear this will be the future of computing. It allows companies to bypass the huge upfront costs of investing in and installing their own hardware. And the real beauty of it is that it is scalable. Netflix for example – a client of Amazon Web Services – takes up one third of all Internet traffic in America during peak times! There is no way they could deliver their service with proprietary servers, but by using the cloud they can just turn up their capacity whenever it is needed.

Where is the qualifying R&D in a cloud computing R&D tax credit claim?
In a typical R&D tax credit claim, hosting costs would not be qualifying. However, that is not to say that development costs around proprietary cloud technologies cannot be claimed. And in some instances there may be opportunities to look at dedicated development servers as well the energy that they consume. You should definitely speak to an R&D tax credit expert to explore your options in this area.

It will be interesting to see what else becomes available over the cloud. Google, for example, allows its cloud customers to use its machine learning technology, making advanced artificial intelligence a resource that can be drawn upon.

Industry experts predict that one day everything will run in the cloud. As less than 10% of the market currently does so, it is clear this is a huge growth area.

5. Gadgets in the workplace

When it comes to innovation, not everything is an instant hit. Some new tech developments seem to be technology for technology’s sake and it is hard to imagine them ever becoming a common feature of the workplace. Of course, only time will tell…

Robot printers in the office

If you are jumping up and down fifty times a day to retrieve documents from the printer, you might be tempted by this new offering from Fuji Xerox. As reported by the BBC, this robotic printer will arrive at your desk whenever you are ready to print.

It may seem like a gimmick, but it brings together many areas of R&D. As well as harnessing robotic technology, it utilises sensors to enable it to move around safely, and sophisticated software to direct it to the correct location.  Originally designed to be used in public places with shared access to printers, it also addresses security and privacy issues, ensuring only the correct recipient is given access to the printed copy.

There may already be better options on the market for secure printing using your mobile phone or laptop combined with a secure password – but they are definitely not as much fun!

Will flexible Screens be the next big thing in the office?

Despite ‘bendgate’ and the iPhone 6 plus being rather curvier than anticipated, it looks like flexibility is the next big thing in the tech world.

There was great excitement at the CES technology show in Las Vegas when LG unveiled (or perhaps we should say unrolled), the world’s first flexible 18-inch display screen. Thanks to their continued commitment and investment into R&D, a paper-thin screen that can be rolled up just like a newspaper has become reality.

It is all made possible by OLED technology (organic light-emitting diodes) which work by putting electricity through a special material that can glow red, green and blue. LG obviously think it is the future as their new $900m OLED plant is due to open in 2017.

It could revolutionise TV technology and claim a place in the boardroom too. Just imagine if all you had to do to prepare for your presentation was roll out a high definition display screen and you would be ready to go. No adaptors, no cables, no problem.

Gesture recognition at work
If you thought gesture recognition was the stuff of Iron Man films, you may be surprised to know this technology has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. From surgeons using hand gestures instead of a mouse or touch screen, right through to gaming, the uses seem to be endless.

So how does it work? A camera reads the movements of a human body by emitting an invisible infrared light. This is then reflected back to the camera and onto a gesture recognition integrated chip or IC. The IC then converts the information into a mathematical algorithm which can be read and understood by a computer. In this way, gestures such as hand movements, clapping, or facial movements can be used as input to control devices or applications.

R&D into sensors, algorithms and user experience (UX) has made this possible and tech companies are now developing gesture recognition for a whole range of applications and industries.  TechNavio analysts have put together their list of the top 18 gesture recognition technology companies most likely to contribute to market growth over the next few years. It makes interesting reading.

Is the future of R&D in the workplace all rosy?

There is no doubting that some of these exciting R&D technological developments will be of great benefit to us. But is there a flipside to this coin?

Inevitably, there will be some knock-on effect. From the reduction of human interaction, to job losses and also potentially issues with privacy and security, there is plenty for us to think about. This article from the Houston Chronicle takes a look at some of the likely pitfalls.

Are you innovating technology in the workplace?

Whether you work in architecture, software, tech or digital, R&D of the office workplace is fascinating. It is also constantly evolving and now reaching places which once upon a time would have been unimaginable. We would love to hear what you are doing to drive technology innovation in the workplace. And don’t forget, if you are working in the UK, you could qualify for R&D tax credits. Call ForrestBrown to find out more.

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