By Laurent Bataille
From the June 2021 Issue
The commute to the office has looked a lot different for many people over the past year. A whopping 71% of workers¹ (whose job could be done remotely) were working from home all or most of the time at the height of the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center. But as we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, employers are at varying stages of reopening their offices—and bringing back employees to varying degrees.
This shift won’t happen overnight, however, and all signs point to companies embracing a flexible work environment that looks vastly different from the pre-pandemic norm. A recent study from JLL finds nearly three-quarters of employees still want access to an office, although a majority of workers want to continue to work from home two days a week.²
With less predictability around the number of employees in an office on any given day, the way offices are designed, built, and operated needs to change. Office spaces will be smaller, configurations will be more flexible (think hot-desking or co-working spaces), and there will be greater emphasis on new, tech-enabled features. The emergence of smart technology and systems in the office will help building developers and landlords attract tenants, and businesses will utilize them to keep their employees safe, as well as retain, inspire, and engage talent.
Smart Technology: Office At Your Fingertips
Adding technology into an office should not be done in an ad hoc manner. Technology implementations should offer tangible value and be easy and intuitive to use. That is why smart technology like voice assistants are a useful addition to consider for future offices.
In fact, we are already seeing companies venture beyond the home market and offering virtual assistant technologies to businesses. Take, for example, Amazon and its Alexa for Business which “enables organizations to and employees to use Alexa to get more work done.”
Another trend that we’ll see is building operators and facility management working with companies to offer employees a go-to virtual assistant via an app. This isn’t a futuristic idea, but one that is already being used in forward-thinking organizations as a single resource. A building or company app can integrate and streamline daily activities such as checking if a meeting room is free, ordering a drink from the cafeteria, or calling an elevator. In the future, the goal is to enable a level of personalization on a mass scale not previously possible. Imagine walking into a room and having the temperature automatically change based on personal preference or being able to pre-program what screen you want to pop up when you walk into a meeting room.
The beauty of an app is that organizations are connecting with their employees where they already are—on their phone—and not requiring them to learn a new technology. And, it allows employees to access offices services and stay informed no matter if they are in the office, working remotely, or on the road.
In the post-pandemic world, however, comfort and productivity won’t be the only thing employees care about. Air quality, appropriate social distancing, and their company’s focus on sustainability are all increasingly important.
Data on indoor air quality, occupancy rates, and light and noise levels for example can be assessed by smart building sensors, which companies can use to make positive interventions that improve health and well-being outcomes. This information can (and should) be integrated back into the app and made accessible to reassure workers returning to the office.
Connectivity And Cybersecurity Considerations
The technology is available today to integrate virtual assistants into an organization’s workflow, but in many cases, the real challenge sits with connectivity. Smart technology depends on easy and plentiful access to data, and building data is notoriously siloed and difficult to access. It’s common for information about a building to live in separate data environments with no connecting thread between them.
For intelligent apps to achieve their full potential, we need all the connected systems to feed them data from across the building infrastructure. Systems integrators have a vital role to play here. A central building management system (BMS) can function as the “brain” of the facility—connecting all assets through open standards to create a single source of truth that can be drawn from. Virtual assistants can then connect to the BMS and leverage the data within to deliver real-time insights into indoor air quality or the number of open workspaces availability in a shared office.
As IoT-enabled building systems become more connected and more data is collected, ensuring that these systems are protected from cybersecurity threats must be a top priority. It is important that outsiders aren’t able to remotely control a building and gain access to the data about the coming and goings of employees. As technology continues to enter more aspects of our lives, employees are more comfortable and have even come to expect that companies will harness the power of next-gen technology to create a better, more connected working environment. However, they also (and rightfully so) expect that their company will do everything in their power to protect them and their data.
The Future Office Experience
The pandemic has changed many aspects of business for the long-term. As companies start to reopen their office doors, new and evolving employee expectations will provide an opportunity to speed up technology implementation and the rate of adoption. When done effectively, smart technology and connected systems will help building operators and facility executives put more power in the hands of the occupants, allowing offices to reach high levels of efficiency and create a human-centric experience that is intuitive and personalized for all.
Bataille is executive vice president for Schneider Electric’s Digital Energy Division. An experienced global business leader, he has a demonstrated track record in general management positions that require expertise in transformational leadership. In his current role at Schneider Electric, Bataille works with his team to reinvent the world’s vision of buildings for the future and accelerating the digitalization of power distribution through technologies solutions such as IoT, software, and cloud solutions for building management.
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Check out more technology and facility management news in previous Facility Executive Tech & FM Columns.