Creating a Safer Post-COVID Workplace with Cisco Webex and IoT-Environmental Sensors


SPIE is very concerned with the security and the safety of its employees. Therefore, through this COVID-19 crisis time, our team set up people counting and air quality services to make our people safer in the offices. And with “In every crisis lies an opportunity” in their mind, our innovation team rushed to offer to the market the security measures we established in our company.

Here at SPIE Switzerland, we are an independent European provider of multi-technical services in the areas of energy and communications. We help our customers build, operate, and maintain energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly facilities. The pillars of our operations include mechanical and electrical services, technical facility management, transmission and distribution, and ICT. Our work supports the construction of the green buildings and smart cities of tomorrow. SPIE has a myriad of tools at our disposal, and our customers need someone who knows how to wield each one effectively.

Collaborating, Not Selling

As the Head of Business Development and Innovation, I'm leading a team of three ICT experts, comprising myself and two DevOps engineers. When we meet with a client, we’re not trying to sell them anything. Instead, we focus on collaboration and problem-solving. 

It’s an interactive and iterative process. Both sides bring something to the table—but it’s not always smooth sailing. When a company is driven by cost savings at the end of each quarter, it can be socially and politically challenging for them to ascertain our value, especially when they might not see a result for 12–18 months. So we have to find a way to provide small, quick wins in order to get the approval to move ahead and deliver the bigger package in the end.

"We’re problem-solvers, and sometimes our customers need a Swiss Army knife to address their challenges." -Massimiliano Franco at SPIE

There is no better analogy for information and communications technology (ICT) than the Swiss Army knife. It is compact and doesn’t look like much at first glance, but inside is a series of tools bundled together that can address almost any problem. You can grip the iconic red handle in different ways depending on the attachment you’re using. Once you’ve gotten used to the knife, you can pull out the tool you need without disturbing the rest.

New Uses for Familiar Products

SPIE is in our 120th year, and we have established partnerships with many leading vendors over that time. When it comes to ICT, one of our most important relationships is with Cisco.

Sometimes, part of solving a problem is figuring out how to do more with what you already have.

The networking tools we use from Cisco are invisible to most end users, but one of the most popular and visible products that we sell, and use internally, is Cisco Webex video conferencing system. The platform occupies a prominent place across all our offices. We have fully equipped Webex conference rooms that allow us to meet and collaborate with our colleagues across the SPIE group of companies, as well as our customers.

And here at our Lausanne office, my team and I decided to take our in-house Cisco Webex deployment one step further.

If you’ve ever worked with Cisco Webex, you know all about the platform’s intelligent cameras that can track users within a room, and the omnidirectional microphones that capture every nuance of the human voice. Then you have the UHD Cisco Webex boards that allow you to meet remotely, share any Webex-enabled device’s screen, and collaborate with colleagues inside and outside a room. 

Or even more, it can also show wayfinding information for employees and visitors, and interactive content, like calendars that include meeting schedules, room bookings, and availability. A board can also display dashboards that update your company’s KPIs in real-time.

Cisco added a new feature (API) to Webex in 2019, and my team decided to put it to the test. We were interested in environmental factors in the office. Our dashboard showed green KPIs, like room temperature, humidity, and air quality—including particulate matter and CO2 levels. We also added status indicators for our electric vehicle charging stations and room occupancy levels. Our new Smart Office Dashboard became a central information system for the wellbeing of the office, and we needed a way to spread this information. 

Rather than highlighting typical performance indicators like sales figures and new accounts, a new in-office display highlights environmental KPIs and physical distancing alerts.

Ensuring Legibility on Big and Small Screens

We wanted to explore the potential of the Webex Cloud xAPI and Webex RoomOS-enabled sensors. Once we integrated input from these sensors into the API, we started building web apps that converted these data streams into usable information. We then designed and configured easy-to-read displays that showed these statistics in real time on our Cisco Webex Boards and our Touch 10 control panels.

Deploying these dashboards took only a few minutes. You can set up digital signage in the Cisco Webex Control Hub or directly using a specific device’s web portal. However, you want to make sure you’ve optimized your content for Webex screens of all sizes. To do this, we kept the text to a minimum, and we used the familiar colors of a traffic light as a visual shorthand to heighten legibility. Whether they’re looking at a 55-inch Cisco Webex Board, a 23-inch Cisco Webex DX80 desktop display, or a Cisco Touch 10-inch control panel, SPIE employees have easy-to-understand environmental KPIs and conference room information at their fingertips. 

Adapting to COVID-19

We rolled out this Smart Office Dashboard at our office last year, which seems like a lifetime ago. The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies—including SPIE—to shut their physical doors and instruct employees to work from home. Many of us started using Webex on personal computers and mobile devices to collaborate remotely and securely with our colleagues. But as restrictions on social distancing have eased in some places, workplaces have begun to open once again.

Our Lausanne office has reopened, but with reduced staff, and to support that my team has expanded the network of sensors to include the entire facility, not just our Webex conference rooms and our EV charging stations. We’ve also modified our Smart Office Dashboard to reflect the safety concerns of a post-COVID workplace. 

We know that extremes in humidity, low temperatures, high particle rates, and poorly ventilated offices can help spread the novel coronavirus. So, we have added sensors and modified the dashboard to display these parameters and to generate alarms when unsafe conditions arise. When CO2 or particulate matter levels are too high, for example, an alarm is triggered, and the dashboard alerts users to ventilate a room. 

We have also added sensors that count the number of people in a room to ensure social distancing protocols can be followed. At that time, only six people at a time can use our cafeteria. If a seventh person walks in, an alarm will sound. We also track the number of people in our hot desk area to ensure that employees who don’t have a dedicated workspace also respect safety procedures.

We rolled out these new features in the last two months, and while employees appreciate SPIE’s efforts to ensure their safety, they also worry about excessive surveillance technology. For this reason, we have opted for anonymous edge video sensors inside the office instead of cameras, which allow us to track people without identifying them.

Leading By Example

We initially rolled out our Smart Office Dashboard as an internal pilot. While our goal is generally to monetize our creations, we didn’t initially see the value in offering it as a solution to our customers. Now, however, there’s immense value in helping our customers ease back into their workspaces while adhering to distancing guidelines. When we showed it to Cisco, we clearly saw the potential to help other businesses adapt to the post-COVID reality. 

There’s immense value in helping customers ease back into their workspaces while adhering to distancing guidelines.

One of SPIE’s founding companies was the first business in Switzerland to use Cisco infrastructure, and we’ve been selling Cisco products for the last 20 years. 

We continue to use Cisco products internally because we know from experience that these are the right tools to build upon, and we are proud to recommend solutions we have adopted ourselves. We choose to lead by example because it is the best way of inspiring our customers to embrace the latest developments in ICT. Although we build solutions based on Cisco’s entire portfolio—including Catalyst 9000 Series switches, SD-WAN, and DNA Center—Webex has really stood out. 

Webex is much more than videoconferencing and screen sharing, and we couldn’t have used any other remote collaboration platform the way we use Webex. Cisco designed Webex to integrate with its entire portfolio of products, including IoT technologies like edge networking devices and wireless sensors. Our Smart Office Dashboard only shows off part of its potential, and we continue to refine this tool with a view to commercializing it in partnership with Cisco.

A lot of people will continue to work from home and—for the foreseeable future—offices will continue to operate at reduced capacity. The great thing about Webex is that it has become the tool that keeps everyone safe, whether they’re onsite or working remotely, and it can continue to do so with our dashboard.

The Tools to Move Beyond COVID

Just as our dashboard embodies the simplicity of a complex tool, Cisco is really our Swiss Army knife for solutions. As an ICT professional, I am always looking for the simplest and most elegant solution to resolve our customers’ problems, and Cisco never disappoints. Whether it’s Webex for remote collaboration, Meraki for cloud-based network management, or HyperFlex for hyperconverged data center architecture, I know I can count on Cisco. The company delivers cutting-edge products that are easy to manage, work seamlessly with one another, and integrate with dozens of third-party solutions. 

We have yet to define the new normal, but I believe it will look vastly different than the work environment we left a few months ago. People want better, cleaner business, and we’ve seen the positive impact that our recent change in behavior has had on the planet. It’s a matter of ecology and efficiency and wellbeing—and we’ve seen that it’s possible. I would even say that it’s worth thinking about if we should still work five days a week at the office, because we have seen the results of the remote experiment.

Cisco gave us the tools we needed to start building our post-COVID strategy, and to start reimagining the workplace of tomorrow. I am confident that their innovation will help businesses and other partners around the world navigate the challenges we are all facing today, and as we make our way onto the other side of this crisis.