The Facility Technologist: Tech For 2012

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the January 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

A facility’s image is important, and public perception of it may hinge on how current the technology operating in it is. Facility occupants are increasingly web savvy and familiar with wireless, and they expect your facility to keep up with the cutting edge of technology. Even if a facility isn’t brand new, a facility manager (fm) can stay current by completing a technology makeover—adding capabilities that can super charge the facility’s performance, occupant experience, and image—without breaking the bank.

Common area Wi-Fi Internet access. Today, every smartphone, laptop, and tablet sold is Wi-Fi capable, and people are using Wi-Fi more and more to stay connected to business and personal cloud services. Wi-Fi is becoming so ubiquitous (with over four million hotspots nationwide) that people are coming to expect it almost everywhere, especially in more modern facilities. In multi tenant buildings, most organizations will provide Wi-Fi within their offices for staff use, but people also enjoy having Wi-Fi in common areas, parking lots, and outdoor campus areas.

Some companies provide Wi-Fi systems that pay for themselves and provide income to facility management (FM) by inserting advertising banners along the edges of the users’ screens. Such systems generate income for the facility, which receives a portion of the ad revenue.

Embrace the cloud. Today, people are increasingly using the Internet for shopping, banking, e-mailing, Skyping, web conferencing, and social networking. People expect everything to be on the web, including the facilities they use. And for fms, web-based systems delivered in an SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) model are easy to deploy, cost less up front, and can often be paid out of operating budgets instead of capital accounts. There is no hardware or software to buy; it is all hosted by the vendor, so set up and management are relatively easy.

Web-based systems for interacting with facility occupants put forth a better image, and they can also save you a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted fielding phone calls. For example, the majority of occupant calls to an FM department relate to work orders, service requests, or other information. By using a system like 360 Facility, facility occupants can log in through the web and request work, check the status of their work orders, request building services, and view building information.

Other systems that had previously required hardware and software on-site can now be deployed through the Internet. For instance, the iVisitor visitor management system is hosted off-site, but it communicates to the access control system in a facility for a seamless system that is managed through the web. Another system that used to be stuck on-site is access control. But Brivo is one example of a web-based access control system that lets you manage multiple facilities from any web browser.

And to provide an easy place from which to access all these systems, fms can consider using a facility’s web site as the central place for occupants and staff alike to interact with the systems. I recently designed a building web site and portal for a commercial office building that staff and occupants find extremely useful. Instead of calling the management office, they now interact with the building through the web portal, and call volume has dropped dramatically. (Hint: Using the facility’s address or name as the web address helps to make it intuitive for users.)

It’s a mobile world. What technology article in 2012 would be complete without mentioning iPhone, iPad, Android, and Blackberry devices? Yes, even facilities now have apps that run on these devices and offer a host of capabilities that would make Spock and his Tricorder jealous. Genetec’s Security Center Mobile app allows users to view live video from surveillance cameras, control PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras, lock and unlock doors, and receive alarms in real time on BlackBerry, Apple, and Android mobile devices.

Tablets and smartphones are all the rage, and they can help after you have implemented your cloud apps. Tablet computers are a very convenient form factor for equipping facilities staff with access to the cloud apps. They are lightweight and easy to use, and nothing says “current technology” like facility staff using tablets. I recently equipped lobby staff in a commercial office facility with tablet computers, freeing them from the desktop computer at the guard desk. These staff members now circulate among guests and workers in the lobby and use their tablet computers to check visitor management, access control systems, and the building web portal. The functional benefit was equaled by the excitement of occupants and visitors who now see the facility as truly cutting edge.

Digital signage. Like Wi-Fi, digital signage is not only functional for occupants and visitors, it can also be a source of income for FM. This is because digital signage companies offer turnkey packages that provide newsfeeds and allow FM to display its own messages as well, which is a great way to communicate facility events and other information to occupants. Some packages integrate building directories with ads and messages into a single display. If you have a very large facility, you can also connect digital signage to your mass notification and fire alarm systems for extra functionality.

Turn access control cards into debit cards. An access control card can do a lot more than simply grant access into a facility. Vendors like Horizon offer point of sale systems for facility cafeterias and vending machines that can accept an access control card as a debit card. Users pre-charge their cards with funds at an online site and can then use the cards for purchases. Customers like the convenience of the cards, and some employers even pitch in by paying a small amount every month, which tends to keep employees on-site—a well known productivity enhancer.

The 21st century is proving to be a time of tremendous technology change, combined with a difficult economy that makes competition in real estate and facilities even more fierce. But a little technology can help make your facility stand out, putting it—and you—ahead of the game.