How Can Smart Transform The Office Experience Post-Covid?

The fusion of building tech, smartphones and wearables could make the post-pandemic workplace not just possible, but much, much better

July 2020

Words by Katie Puckett

You’re cutting it fine to get to your first meeting – but that’s okay. You’ve already ordered your coffee via the office mobile app, and as the turnstiles open automatically on your approach, you can see it’s just ready for you to collect. You’re excited about the day ahead. Yesterday, you were ploughing through reports at home, but today you’ve come into the office to catch up with colleagues – your team has a brainstorm to prepare for a pitch you’re due to deliver next week via hologram. You can see from the company portal that it’s going to be busy, but you’ve already booked your favourite desk, facing out on the building perimeter, as well as a mid-afternoon yoga class on the terrace.

The app has an elevator waiting to take you to your first destination. It knows you’re trying to increase your step count so it’s allotted you a multimedia huddle room on the other side of the building, but you find it easily with turn-by-turn directions. As you approach, the door opens and the room controls appear on your smartphone screen, telling you it’s set to your preferred temperature. You’ve made it with a minute to spare – just enough time to open your laptop and watch the large, high-definition screen on the wall come to life. One click and your colleague is there, speaking to you – it’s as if they’re in the room, even though you know they’re on the other side of the world, preparing to log off for the day. They want to walk you through a new project, so you slip on your augmented reality glasses…

"This is going to push us further towards technology adoption that people have been wanting for a long time"

Natalie Engels, Gensler

It’s office life not as we know it, but as it could be, and sooner than you think. Digital technologies can already do all of this, and Covid-19 will accelerate their adoption in offices. In this series on the post-pandemic office, we’ve already considered the many ways in which the knowledge workplace is likely to change, from the impact of physical distancing to changing occupier demand. It is clear that for an office to be successful – as a place for collaboration, as an embodiment of corporate culture, as commercial real estate – it must become a destination of choice. That means giving people more space, greater freedom and flexibility, and a stimulating, unique experience, as well as placing much greater emphasis on health and wellbeing. Smart technologies can support all of this, easing the transition and helping to create a frictionless environment that, at its best, just works.

“This is going to push us further towards technology adoption that people have been wanting for a long time,” says Natalie Engels, technology leader at Gensler in San Jose. “It’s much like the airport experience that we had to adapt to after 9/11. At first, all of the screening and new processes seemed cumbersome and overwhelming, and there’s going to be an aspect of that as we move back into the office. So we’re considering how we can take the technology that’s needed and make it pleasant.”

Last week, we looked at how building owners can take advantage of smart technologies such as mobile access control and Bluetooth beacons to make post-Covid operations safer and more efficient – to enable touchless entry and circulation, for example, target cleaning where it’s needed or run building systems according to occupancy levels. Essentially these use smartphones as proxies for people, identifying or anonymizing them as required. The flipside is that they also allow users to interact with the building using their personal devices, with the same platform connecting different data streams together to support a whole range of value-added services. “Building apps have been around for a while but they’ve been on the periphery,” says Roneel Singh, smart technology specialist and a director at WSP in Melbourne. “They’ve been seen as a gimmick, rather than something that can actually enhance the lives of building users. I think that there will be more demand for these and that we’ll see better, more holistic versions.”

"You could use the app on your phone to call the elevator, and it could send you a note to let you know where there’s a free seat so you know which way to turn when you reach your floor"

Jaco Cronje, WSP

There’s an app for that

Building systems could reassure occupants by providing real-time information about the environment itself, such as occupancy levels, air quality or how recently spaces have been cleaned. One example is the CleanPulse app, which WSP developed for Canadian transport and tour operator Ontario Northland, so passengers or hotel guests can check the cleaning status of their bus or room. This could be easily rolled out to offices, either linked to the building management system or, more simply, as a cloud-based app.

“People are going to want that sense of safety – they want to feel comfortable that they’re not exposing themselves to risk,” says Randy Howder, Gensler principal and managing director of its San Francisco office. “The only way to really know that is with the kind of data that sensors provide. Before, this was just used to help facilities managers understand whether they needed more conference rooms or to turn the lights off when nobody was there, but now it’s going to be much more important to show data on spaces being maintained or cleaned.”

As well as facilitating touch-free entry, apps could also help to resolve common gripes about contemporary offices, such as a lack of dedicated space. “Your phone acts as your access card to move around the building,” says Jaco Cronje, an Internet-of-Things solution architect with WSP in Houston. “You could use the app on your phone to call the elevator, and it could send you a note to let you know where there’s a free seat so you know which way to turn when you reach your floor.” Connecting access control to the presence sensor network and room booking system could facilitate genuine activity based-working, by enabling people to view occupancy levels in different areas and reserve spaces. If the room booking system is integrated with individuals’ schedules, they could be automatically allotted appropriate spaces for each part of the day. Then if you want to speak to a colleague, the app could show their location so that you don’t have to wander fruitlessly.

Building amenities could also be accessed through the app, enabling people to place orders for food or book fitness sessions, and check on queues for the lunchroom. Queueing is set to become an all-too-familiar experience in the post-Covid world, and this will drive an expectation for virtual solutions, believes Fran Heller, CEO of Californian start-up Good2Go. Its restroom app was commercially  launched in 2019 in response to the lack of public restrooms, and offers keyless, touchless access and virtual queueing to a network of facilities. Post-Covid, touchless restrooms will be even more valued, but it’s the virtual queuing component of the app that is suddenly fulfilling a critical need. “No one likes to stand in a queue, so having your position held virtually – so your phone stands in line for you – is a highly desirable feature,” she says. “If you could get into the queue for the restroom while you’re sitting at your desk, that is way more efficient. But it doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of the door, it’s applicable to any resource.” Heller is now talking to office owners about using the app to manage elevator capacity.

"Maybe the more data you are willing to share, the more the smart building management system takes care of you"

Oliver Larsson, WSP

Giving occupants control

Occupants could not only understand but control their environment via their own device too. “We can create integration that allows people to walk into a meeting room and scan a code to enable room control on their own phone while they’re there,” says Colin O’Gallagher, senior associate and smart building consultant with WSP in New York. “Then they don’t have to touch a communal control pad, but there’s a wow factor in it too. I think landlords are going to want to invest in strategies that are highly visible and really have an impact on the occupant experience by giving a technology-rich feel to their spaces.”

Going a step further, the building could connect with wearables or smartphone health apps to support health and wellbeing or fitness goals. “Maybe the more data you are willing to share, the more the smart building management system takes care of you,” suggests Oliver Larsson, telecoms director at WSP in Sweden. “In the app, you could say ‘this week, I want to be a bit more healthy’, so it might tell you not to take the elevator or book the conference room that’s furthest away from your office space so you have to walk more.” This could be coupled with “nudges” to help people adopt healthier behaviours, he adds – he gives the example of a Swedish developer that deliberately makes the elevators slower to encourage people to take the stairs. To address concerns about privacy, this could be opt-in only: “It’s like a cookie on the web – if you want to have a new layer of information, you can accept it. If you don’t want to have that opportunity, you don’t have to.”

All of this is likely to span both landlord and occupant systems, so there needs to be some integration between them. The developer or facility manager could provide the core application and then issue modules to individual tenants, which can be reskinned for a different look and feel. Or if a tenant already has their own application and portal, they can use APIs to exchange information with the building systems. “We can build a robust network infrastructure in such a way that building owners can easily add apps to the set of services they offer their tenants,” says Lucy Casacia, vice president, smart solutions at WSP in Canada. “That enables the space to be adaptable and to evolve to meet needs in real time as they arise. We know we’re going to need a greater awareness of where people are, but we also need to inject some kind of interactivity so that people can be in a space and feel the excitement. It would be terrific if we could make our workplace feel like we’re at a sports or entertainment event, and get that sense of camaraderie. You just can’t recreate that vibe through platforms such as Zoom or Teams.”

"We can build a robust network infrastructure in such a way that building owners can easily add apps to the set of services they offer their tenants"

Lucy Casacia, WSP

Behind the camera

Video calls will, however, be an unavoidable part of working life from now on. A substantial number of people will be working from home at any one time – to comply with occupancy restrictions, because they prefer it, or as part of a greater corporate shift to remote working – and travelling to attend a meeting will be less common. Pandemic working has also unleashed much greater inter-office and international collaboration: if everyone’s on video, it doesn’t matter where you are.

This is one of the most significant areas where the physical office will be found wanting. Corporate IT setups were already compared unfavourably with the simplicity and intuitiveness of consumer tech. While consumer tech isn’t expected to meet the same level of security or robustness, corporate tech does have to keep up with consumer expectations. “People will expect to be able to walk into the space and for it to work as simply as you turning on your laptop at home,” says Singh. “You shouldn’t need to have a Masters degree to figure out how to connect to the WiFi or display content on a meeting room screen. We need to move away from the gadget-focused approach and look at the functionality of the room.” Audio-visual equipment needs to operate so well that you don’t even notice it, and it needs to work across all platforms. There will also need to be many more smaller soundproof huddle rooms for two or three-person calls – or the open-plan office risks turning into a call centre.

The pandemic will also drive innovation in collaboration technologies themselves, says Howder. During the pandemic, Gensler has been using the Miro digital whiteboard to share work: “That’s easy when everyone is virtual, but when we’re back in the office, we’re used to ways of working where you might pin a drawing to a wall and then everyone stands back and looks at it. That can’t really happen when some of your team are virtual. There has always been a bias towards people in the office in terms of their experience and their ability to interact and collaborate. We’ve been thinking a lot about how you make a seamless connection between those who are remote and those who are in the room.”

Within the next few years, Howder thinks it could be possible to have virtual participants sitting at a conference table in holographic form. Holograms have already been used to bring dead rock stars back to life for eerily convincing “live” shows – as the technology develops, they could be used for virtual presentations or pitches. Even more commonplace will be augmented reality: “Instead of sharing your screen, you’re sharing that augmented reality experience,” says Singh. “You’ll be able to be in a physical space, walk through it with someone and have a conversation.” He thinks this could be added to video conferencing platforms within 18-24 months.

"It has always been very hard to quantify the business benefit of the user experience. But if it’s done well, people won’t want to give it up"

Roneel Singh, WSP

It’s not just the in-person meeting experience that we need to replicate for virtual workers. They also miss out on the more passive awareness of office interaction and the sense of community. “These are some of the aspects of work that will be accelerated faster because now everyone understands what it is like working from home, and they don’t want to lose this connection regardless of how far apart we are,” says Engels. Howder suggests that each workspace or neighbourhood could have a large monitor showing the group’s latest activity: “You could see where people are and a feed of conversations going on, so you have the same awareness of chat threads that you do in a physical space. In our office, we have a digital board of all the employees and their quirky photos. You could imagine extending that to a more real-time display of what people are doing now.”

In the post-Covid market, smart will become one of the most important points of differentiation for developers and landlords, believes Singh. “It has always been very hard to quantify the business benefit of the user experience,” he says. “But if it’s done well, people won’t want to give it up.” He compares it to the way that airlines and consumer electronics companies seek to secure loyalty, beyond simply selling flights or gadgets. Apple made its television available at a heavily discounted price to keep consumers purchasing media content from its library and using its smartphones; Qantas rewards frequent flyers with access to its premium lounges. “Once people have been in the Platinum lounge, they really want to get their travel spend up to reach it again. We need to create that sort of feeling in a building: if people are able to transition seamlessly and they have access to all of these amenities, you create an ecosystem that they won’t want to leave.”

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