By Robert Bach
The last few years have seen an accelerated movement towards agility in the workplace, with many companies eliminating assigned seating, implementing clean desk policies, and adopting open floor plans with rotating “hot desks.” While this change in office design was in progress even before the onset of COVID-19, the pandemic has served as a catalyst to drive the adoption of unified collaboration technologies and remote work, bringing new relevance to these strategies as collaboration and flexibility are more prioritized than ever before.
As companies look to return fully or partially to their offices in the near future, integrating a technology infrastructure that creates a uniform workplace experience at all sites has become a business necessity to optimize productivity. These investments allow for ad hoc adjustments and enable intelligence gathering to inform future decisions. Understanding and embracing the technology solutions necessary to create this type of “smart building” environment is something facilities executives, IT leaders, and corporate operations decision-makers must prioritize.
Balancing Productivity and Personalization
Research from KPMG’s annual CEO Outlook survey has shown that while the share of CEOs looking to reduce office space moving forward has dropped dramatically since last summer’s predictable spike, their needs have definitively changed, with over 60% of CEOs planning to build on their collaboration and communication tools. This means spaces appropriate for pre-pandemic business may no longer be suitable for post-pandemic priorities, even down to the individual workstation level.
In prior eras, desk spaces were unique, and it was up to the assigned individual to design, decorate, and dig in. As enterprises bring everyone back into an environment where assigned seats are removed and clean desks are enforced, employees will see little difference between any given desk prior to sitting down. To avoid some of the friction that may arise from workers no longer knowing where to sit, especially in the case of hybrid workers who will be coming and going consistently, businesses must provide a uniformly distributed UC toolkit to create seamless collaboration capabilities. In other words, if it doesn’t matter where a worker sits, that worker needs access to an identical experience everywhere.
As long as UC technology hardware like webcams, desk phones, and noise cancelling headsets are put in place, along with more traditional technology hardware, workers will be able to sit down, log on, and immediately get to work. Once synced, their calendar will appear, as will their contacts, documents, and everything else they will need to be productive. Collaboration hardware that is compatible with multiple software platforms will also allow for BYOD policies that allow workers to keep the devices they already have, and enable them to move from home to office without troubleshooting or switching devices.
So, while workers may not recognize their desks, their desks will recognize them. UC tools can even deliver digitally some of the personalization that agility has stripped away by hosting family photos and personalized content when not actively in use.
This exchange of a personalized physical experience for a personalized digital one will offset the barren feel of an agile office while still facilitating the flexibility enterprises now prioritize. It will also keep top talent around, as skilled knowledge workers will be more likely to continue in their role if they feel they are being given the appropriate tools to succeed, not just for function but also for fun. Users should be attracted to the corporate office for those experiences they cannot obtain at the home office.
Versatility for the Present, Intelligence for the Future
Just as a knowledge worker might leave an employer because they aren’t provided the technology infrastructure that they need to enjoy a productive and personalized experience, so too might an organization look to find a new space if their existing office can’t meet their needs. These needs include the flexibility to adapt their space in real-time, and the data gathering tools for future decision-making. This needs to be top of mind for facilities executives and ownership, especially as the commercial real estate market remains in flux.
At the time of this writing, JPMorgan is looking to move off nearly 700,000 square feet of commercial real estate in two of their Manhattan skyscrapers, with CEO Jamie Dimon indicating that enterprise demand for real estate will slip. What Dimon doesn’t say is that while commercial real estate demand overall may decrease, enterprise demand for versatile smart buildings may actually rise, as evidenced by the fact that his bank is currently building a towering new headquarters for itself with a flexible “universal design” able to be configured in a variety of styles.
This sort of versatility is being prioritized because companies don’t know exactly what they need. Pre-pandemic, enterprises needed 100 seats for 100 employees. Post-pandemic, Dimon expects his bank will only require about 60. But because the pandemic created such an unprecedented disruption to workplaces, Dimon’s forecast, and the real estate decisions of other companies across countless industries, are largely based on “guesswork” and the teachings of now-outdated design textbooks.
That must change moving forward because the last thing companies want after a year of uncertainty is more uncertainty. Companies will prioritize smart buildings with built-in tools that allow them to gather as much user and usage data as possible. This can include metadata like number and timing of meetings, but also real-time telemetry measuring how many people are on a floor or in a room. These figures will inform future decisions, like whether the company needs a large conference room space or whether smaller breakout rooms might be more efficient. Sensors will show if there are enough desks; if building amenities, workspaces, and neighborhoods are outfitted appropriately; and if they are being used and appreciated.
From Buzzword to Business Necessity
The way people work has changed, which means once everyone returns to the office, the way the office works must change, too. This will require the introduction of standardized technology tools that facilitate agile productivity while also allowing for a degree of personalization. It will also demand flexibility with furniture and room design that can be adapted to a company’s changing needs, while also including trackers, sensors, and other data gathering tools that can inform requirements and processes in the future. “Smart building” technology is no longer a buzzword; it is a business necessity that will allow companies and their employees to work in versatile, agile, and measurable ways.
Bach is Director of Product Strategy in Crestron’s Digital Workplace, developing products and software solutions to enable the modern workforce and the future workspace. Prior to working at Crestron, Robert worked for WPP Group, running UC and Agile Workplace IT strategy for M&A, new construction, refits, office consolidation, and densification to drive a better employee experience for the world’s largest global advertising and marketing firm. Prior to that, he worked in Sales and Operations roles running Helpdesk and Sales Engineering at BT Conferencing and Wire One Communications. Robert has spoken frequently at Infocomm and other industry tradeshows on topics like Remote Working, the Consumerization of AV, the Convergence of AV and IT, and Best Practices for Network Design for Communications Solutions.