workplace technology

Pandemic spurs case for workplace technology

Occupancy data to find new relevance
Thursday, April 23, 2020
By Rebecca Melnyk

Organizations may consider more flexible working conditions once employees return to the workplace. Some researchers believe the pandemic is accelerating expectations that were already percolating—for instance, remote working. Facility managers, in turn, will need to shepherd in new and supportive technologies if this does occur.

Remote working is one sector poised to be fundamentally changed as the crisis unfolds, according to a new report from BMO Capital Markets Economic Research. As the report states, people are realizing they can learn new technologies that can enhance productivity and save money for both employees and companies. Employers are being forced to reimagine roles never thought suitable for telecommuting. Flexibility might also keep them competitive.

“We are now starting to see companies not only wanting to weather the storm, but thinking about what the opportunities are to make a change and rethink how they work, ” says Karen Plum, director of research and development at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA). “I think there could be more demand for flexibility—for people to have more choices where and when they work, but many will still desire to come into the office to be with other colleagues.”

Technology is a tool to help support agile workplaces. She says tools like Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts allow people to have the sort of conversations they want to have in the office in the best way possible, without interruptions. Connecting with others should be seamless as possible.

“The delivery of the tool is one thing; the training and implementation has to be part of the same package,” she notes. “Engage with teams on how the tools might better support them and how they can help.”

Key takeaways from a recent AWA online workshop on managing agile workers included notes on technology and tech support. Managers should be asking if they have sufficient network capability to support the number of staff regularly working from home, regarding the data processing requirements of the types of applications they will be using. Managers should also have support in place to log and resolve technology issues, replace or fix faulty equipment, address service or access issues, and update remote workers about service issues and fault resolution.

Occupancy analytics will take on new relevance

A greater acceptance of remote work may leave managers with emptier spaces to operate. Facilities will also need to be more productive and healthy, and occupancy metrics to optimize the usage of space will take on new relevance. The global occupancy analytics market is already growing within commercial real estate; new statistics forecast it will rise to $5.7 billion by 2024.

Before the pandemic hit, tenants and landlords were already beginning to track office usage with sensors that determine if the space is being occupied efficiently, according to Lisa Fulford Roy, senior vice-president and head of CBRE’s Canadian Workplace Strategy Practice, who adds, this same technology can identify which heavily trafficked areas need deep cleaning, where density is too high, and which workstations are both free and sanitized.

“The sudden change and adaptation to remote working conditions surely has employers thinking about what the future of office environments will look like,” muses Hugo Lafontaine, vice-president of digital energy at Schneider Electric Canada.

For employers wanting to optimize how current space is used, he suggests they analyze the types of active roles in their company and combine that information with the current utilization of their workspace.

“Detailed occupancy data combined with strong analytics will provide invaluable data in order to confirm certain assumptions of current utilization, and very importantly offer the ability to measure and quantify the results of such shifts in utilization,” he says. “A clear understanding of space utilization could potentially lead companies to lower the amount of square footage needed for their workforce.”

The future workplace model he envisions is a hybrid approach between working full time at home and full time in the office.

“This will be a complex matter to manage for certain employers; having the ability to leverage workspace management platforms will be key to enact it,” he says. “Such platforms would not only be comprised of your typical ceiling occupancy sensors, but also use sensors such as desk/chair motion sensors, sound (DB) level monitors, air quality monitors, and light level sensors. All of these sensors would need to be connected to analytics software to provide meaningful information with a clear user interface that an employer could leverage to garner actionable insights to inform and drive changes.”

Workplace flexibility is already top of mind for occupants and building service providers. As Bill Argeropoulos, principal and practice leader of research at Avison Young, points out, our world is in the early stages of a technological revolution; technology is already a part of how we work.

“COVID-19 is just accelerating that transition,” he says. “For example, take robotic process automation (RPA). There will be some physical automation, akin to the robots we already see in warehousing and manufacturing facilities. But for workers who focus on knowledge rather than products, most RPA is likely to be software or app based, enabling you to automate workflows across multiple interfaces. Ultimately, this may result in the need for less office space or for work to become more distributed across multiple locations, including your home.”

This automation process is fast-emerging trend, he notes. Functions like routine information processing within the banking, insurance and accounting sectors will be greatly impacted, but the influence on companies and individual jobs with more face-to-face tasks, like real estate, is less obvious.

“Before the real estate sector can benefit from the transformative efficiencies and profitability improvements technology can deliver, there must be a change in mindset,” he says. “As it relates to more relevance in occupancy sensors or other technology in mining data about who is using the space and when – if that wasn’t already happening in the workplace, it probably will, going forward.”

The vast amount of data collected can be combined with other smart building technology to help facility management teams make fact-based decisions when looking at space requirements, he muses.

“I anticipate that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead toward a rise in a mobile workforce around the globe and accelerate the expectations of today’s multi-generational workforce already present in the marketplace,” he says. “In fact, we are embarking on an unprecedented global experiment in flexible and mobile working. Though it remains to be seen what impact this will have on productivity and output, I believe it will accelerate the adoption of new technology and flexible working practices.”

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