8 Technologies for Returning to Work
Considerations for safely reopening physical offices
As our country explores the feasibility of “reopening” the economy in the wake of Covid-19, corporations are considering whether and how to reopen their offices.
After a massive work from home (“WFH”) natural experiment, dozens of executives, journalists, and bloggers have declared either that the office has never been more important or is dead altogether. For organizations seeking to regain pre-Covid business activity yet still keep their employees safe, these conflicting messages can be confusing. Over the last several weeks we have spoken to corporations, startups, and investors across the real estate value chain to determine how the modern office’s next phase may unfold — and for how long.
Many workers, especially low-income earners, cannot fully WFH. Nevertheless, according to Gallup, 7 out of 10 Americans currently working from home are fearful about returning to the office. Some companies, such as Twitter, may adopt WFH policies indefinitely. Others, such as Apple, may ask employees to resume physical office attendance. And some businesses may pursue hybrid strategies, whereby employees toggle between remote work and in-office work to collaborate with colleagues.
Our research and conversations with ecosystem participants indicate that most companies plan to retain a meaningful real estate footprint. However, offices must now give workers a reason to come in rather than WFH. Office buildings have now effectively joined their real estate peers, such as malls and sports stadiums, where attendees arrive for an experience, not a transaction. To paraphrase one workplace experience CEO, “Experience is king, queen, bishop, and knight.” As with retail and sports, technology will be critical to entice workers to return to physical offices.
Accordingly, owners and employers will need to strike a balance as they implement new technologies and procedures to ensure workplaces are safe and convenient. Protocols that are too disruptive or draconian may cause occupiers to avoid the trouble of coming to the office at all. Because the future of work may increasingly blend remote with in-person, offices will need to serve occupiers not only in the current crisis, but also after the pandemic eventually subsides.
While no single technology is a cure-all, we captured 8 tech-enabled factors we believe every company should consider to maximize employee safety and productivity.
The first step in returning to the office might be the most difficult — how to get there. Nearly 84% of the US population lives in urban areas, and 21% of adult city-dwellers rely on public transportation on a daily or weekly basis. Accordingly, commuters have reasonable concerns about riding on cramped mass transit systems, where a virus might spread more easily. Ride-sharing with strangers today appears equally unappealing, and buying a car amid a battered economy is daunting. As an HR representative from a global industrials conglomerate put it, “Transportation is the #1 challenge we have in bringing our employees back.”
Despite commuting concerns, employees appear willing to compromise. In a recent study, 69% of respondents missed some elements of their commute, although there was little nostalgia for commuting by car. Employers can explore personal mobility solutions, private shuttle services, or expanding bike space to allay employee concerns, as nearly 20% of respondents said they wished to bike to work more often.
The cost-benefit analysis of expanding workers’ commuting benefits remains early and tenuous. Mass market autonomous vehicles are still several years away. Private shuttles may lead to more congestion and reignite the Silicon Valley bus uproar of the early 2010s, while biking is less practical in cold weather regions. Instead, companies may simply emulate Wall Street banks that are considering opening smaller suburban offices.
2. Facilities Management
Facilities management consists of services that ensure the comfort, cleanliness, security, and overall operations of a built environment. Office cleanliness has conspicuously taken on new meaning in recent months, and will be an essential component of any workplace return plan.
Facilities managers will have a new level of responsibility in managing workplace cleanliness at a high frequency and large scale. Implementing appropriate procedures will be critical to making tenants feel comfortable and safe returning to the office, such as potentially having cleaners come in just before employees arrive so they can smell the cleanliness. Robots, whether for cleaning or security monitoring, could also help create a safe and sterile environment.
Supply chain disruption and limitations may continue to be a challenge as offices start reopening. Facilities managers will require a considerably larger supply of in-demand personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning materials than prior to Covid-19, negatively impacting their bottom line. Managers will also need to conduct more frequent cleanings without disrupting occupiers during work hours, as the ability for robots to operate autonomously in noncontrolled environments remains challenged.
3. Visitor Management Systems
Visitor management systems (VMS) refer to the way that a building’s temporary guests are processed. Guests can be defined as anyone from interview candidates to part-time contractors. Before Covid-19, the main threat that an unknown visitor posed was theft or violence. Today, that threat now includes the potential spread of pathogens. In late May, one of the world’s largest security integrators recently remarked that this is the most frequent customer request he receives.
To mitigate that threat, building owners and occupiers should consider promoting tech-enabled guest screenings that include health information and recent whereabouts, while still protecting guests’ privacy rights. An appropriate solution would also properly exit guests and limit contact with other occupants.
Visitor management challenges include ensuring visitors’ fidelity upon registration. Some current vendors prompt guests to complete a health questionnaire, asking whether or not they have been sick in the last 14 days. What prevents a part-time contractor who is ill, yet needs to provide for his family, from lying?
Similarly, visitor arrivals are inherently random. VMS solutions must determine how to enforce social distancing upon spontaneous guests, or require that visitors be pre-registered. And if the check-in process is too stringent, visitors may opt for teleconferencing instead.
4. Touchless Physical Access Control
Physical access control systems (PACS) refer to the physical security devices that protect homes, offices, and buildings. In offices, access control primarily consists of badge readers and door locks. Given that the virus can live on frequently opened door handles for a few days, obsessively wiping down doorknobs has become a Covid-19 pastime. However, this habit lacks both scale and convenience.
“Touchless” PACS are not new; biometric security solutions, such as palm scanners, have existed for nearly half a century. However, the current pandemic has dramatically increased demand for touchless technology, with the market expected to reach $70 billion by 2030, a five-fold increase from today. Intrinsically, these solutions can enable occupants to enter and exit buildings, offices, and rooms while limiting contact and without compromising security. They are also primarily digital-first, enabling broader smart building integrations such as with aforementioned VMS tools.
The biggest challenge for a touchless solution is the door itself. An effective solution would need to pair with an automatic door so that the handle is never touched; however, automatic doors only represent about 1/6th of the overall door market, necessitating potentially expensive building retrofits. Additionally, the “tailgating” security risk is perhaps magnified, as unauthorized individuals may be able to enter spaces more easily.
Some occupants, especially more regulated entities like banks, may still require physical cards or fobs. Consequently, this security balance between owners and occupiers’ preferences may limit touchless PACS adoption.
5. Navigation and Wayfinding
Wayfinding refers to navigating physical spaces. 6 months ago, a central directory in a lobby may have been sufficient. Yet responding to public health guidelines on social distancing, some offices and retailers have hurried out makeshift solutions such as floor decals. However, as Quartz’s Anne Quito quips, these solutions only represent temporary “half-baked design solutions.”
To minimize physical interaction among building occupants, building access may be more limited in the near-term. Elevators may operate one-at-a-time while office corridors become one-way. Mobile-first wayfinding solutions can provide occupiers with interactive digital maps and location-based services, enabling them to navigate spaces in a socially distant and building code-compliant manner. They can also promote faster routes to an occupant’s destination and reduce loitering in common areas.
Digital wayfinding solutions carry intrinsic regulatory and privacy concerns. If an occupant does not follow her guided route, who intervenes? Even if she does faithfully follow her route, how is personally identifiable information appropriately managed?
End users also need to accept these solutions. On a weekly basis, the average consumer uses only 7–9 phone apps. Since wayfinding literally involves helping someone go from Point A to Point B, it is often already incorporated into arrival-based solutions like VMS.
6. Workplace Experience and Communication
Workplace experience encompasses systems that enable services such as space reservation or communication between building owners and occupiers. As employees return to the workplace, managing how spaces are used and establishing effective communication channels between building owners and occupiers will be essential.
As Cushman & Wakefield’s Head of Strategic Consulting recently stated, current trends “will further push towards collaboration in the office.” To balance collaboration with health and safety, workplace experience solutions can help employers stagger work shifts and arrange desks in order to promote physical distancing. This technology can also facilitate simple, effective communication with tenants inside and outside of the office if policies evolve or emergencies occur. Lastly, owners and occupiers can leverage data from such solutions to enrich their building experiences further.
Many vendors on the market typically offer white-labeled mobile apps for building owners, or are simply embedded in other office apps such as emergency notification services. Their utility relies either on consistent tenant engagement or broader interoperability with third-parties, mirroring the potential pitfalls that navigation tools must face.
7. Space Utilization and Management
Space utilization measures how real estate is used over time. Solutions often involve sensors that track the flow of people as they enter, exit, and move around an office, providing insights to owners and occupiers on how to optimize their real estate footprint. The pandemic has put a spotlight on people flow and real estate utilization, a scrutiny we expect to continue.
Space management solutions that provide robust analytics on people count and movement can enable owners and occupiers to leverage data to manage workplace re-entry strategies and ongoing facilities needs. They can also help ensure social distancing compliance by measuring employee density levels and how spaces are being used. Additionally, these technologies can help tenants better comprehend long-term real estate needs, as more of their employees may work remotely and as municipalities place limits on office capacity.
Balancing safety with privacy rights is paramount. Owners will need to communicate early and often when rolling out these solutions so that occupiers understand their intent and how their data is being used. Additionally, many of these solutions are hardware-based, potentially requiring an initial capital expenditure.
8. Securing Remote Work
Most workplaces are outfitted with a variety of cybersecurity systems that protect office networks, devices, and accounts. However, the unprecedented number of people working from home and recent upswing in cyber attacks add new complexity to workforce security.
If employees continue WFH full-time or toggle between in-office and remote work, creating a seamless and effective security system across both environments is critical. Tools like virtual private networks (VPNs), password managers, identity access management solutions (IAMS), and security tokens can help employees maintain proper security protocols while working from home and enable an easier transition back to the office. Indeed, 70% of organizations now plan to increase cybersecurity spending amid the pandemic; this is a ripe opportunity for startups to bridge this distributed security landscape.
Since the Covid-19 crisis began, the cyber threat landscape has become more complex as hackers see opportunity in less secure remote work perimeters. Additionally, with employees at home, IT professionals face difficulties in deploying new cybersecurity tools, particularly in industries accustomed to on-premise software. Some at-home cybersecurity solutions also require buy-in from employees, a process that may be more challenging when they are remote.
I am not a medical expert, so I excluded healthcare and diagnostic tools. While I do expect government agencies like OSHA to play a larger role in workplace safety, I’m not a policy expert and excluded governmental considerations. I also omitted design-only solutions, such as furniture.
Importantly, there is also no one-size-fits-all strategy. Different buildings require different protocols; an urban skyscraper will require different systems than a single-tenant suburban building. Lastly, it’s important to talk to your employees about their concerns and considerations. Employees may have other needs, such as staying home with children, that could further complicate a return to the office. As a recent CIO Dive article put it, a successful strategy requires “visibility, employee engagement and trust.”
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Thanks to Touchdown Ventures Associate Jen Sieber for her research and contributions.
Jack Taylor is a Principal at Touchdown Ventures, a Registered Investment Adviser that provides “Venture Capital as a Service” to help leading corporations launch and manage their investment programs.
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