The changes to office technology post COVID-19 will bring new features that could make our work life more efficient, productive and healthy.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed numerous aspects of how we live but it profoundly changed how many people worked, forcing millions to work from home. It also put a spotlight on corporate technology and whether companies could still operate productively and efficiently with many of their staff working at home.
There was a fast adoption of home working technologies such as Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform which reported a daily rise in meeting participants from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million by March 2020. And Microsoft Teams has more than tripled the number of daily active users since late 2019.
Smart Buildings Take on New Meaning
With an increased focus on health and safety in the workplace, smart buildings can help ensure the workplace and building environment is up to par. Smart offices use automated processes to enhance buildings operations, from air conditioning and heating, through to lighting and security.
This shift towards a fully integrated, tech-enabled and connected network is allowing for big data analysis. For example, the use of technology and sensors means workers may be able to know where in the office is currently best for ‘quiet’ work, or when to avoid peak lift traffic, or where to locate colleagues in the office, or even allocate workspaces or car parking spaces based on the person’s itinerary and preferences.
And in the new socially-distanced workplace, sensing hardware coupled with analytics are able to plan seating allocations based upon configurable social-distancing guidelines/regulations. This newly added feature to the pre-existing analytics tools shows the power of utilizing data and software.
We believe demand for smart office buildings and space will grow over time. Buildings with advanced technology can support a company’s environmental, sustainability, health and wellness objectives while also offering better overall experience for the workforce.
Workplace Apps and the Employee Experience
The current COVID-19 restrictions have accelerated demand for other digital solutions that enable companies to provide a safe working environment for employees, so they feel comfortable going back to the office. As people start to return, workplace apps are evolving to include new features focusing on health and safety.
Many commonly used workplace apps already support basic admin tasks such as booking meeting rooms and finding available hot desk space – but these functions are now being developed further to incorporate new functions imposed by the pandemic.
Take the Safe Distance app, developed by Smart Citti and Wrld3D. It creates a 3D map of the office and pinpoints the position of staff to show which areas are busy and help decision-making around when to use communal facilities.
Even before the pandemic companies were gradually adopting a wide variety of apps to support employees and office operations but now, they are playing a business-critical role. Consulting firm PwC is testing a mobile app in its Shanghai office that uses GPS signals to geolocate employees. If an employee later tests positive for coronavirus, the company’s HR department can use the data to notify those who’ve come in close contact with the infected person.
There are other apps helping to create a contactless workplace including near-field communication instead of keycards to give employees access to a building or lift systems via their smartphone, or to buy food and drink from cash-free workplace canteens. And then, of course, there are the chat and video apps that COVID-19 has brought to life. Apps are not just about the practical aspects of office life, they have a valuable role in building a community among employees to reinforce company culture and values and promote productivity and engagement.
It is important for the different business departments and different tasks, from room bookings to logging workplace facilities requests to be fully integrated. This alignment is even more critical in the post-pandemic environment as seamless digital integration will be expected to support employees in the office and those working remotely.
The New Contactless Office
Before the pandemic, touch-free technology in workplaces extended to sensor-operated automatic doors and hands-free soap dispensers. Now, as companies gradually return to the office, strict hygiene measures and the focus on employee health are in the spotlight.
As part of the post-COVID office rethink, technology that enables staff to avoid contact with frequently used surfaces such as lift buttons, light switches, taps and meeting room booking screens is becoming of greater interest to employers. Replacing common contact points with touch-free options removes areas where the virus may linger, protecting staff and operationally, reducing the number of surfaces which need to be cleaned regularly.
While security swipe cards for most office staff are commonplace, their potential to add more functions is yet to be explored. There are smarter swipe cards that not only allow an employee to access entry barriers, but simultaneously call a lift car to a designated floor. This kind of integration may need to become more commonplace.
Mobile applications can work as a personal remote control for an employee’s work environment, helping to navigate their day, from booking a meeting room to ordering and paying for lunch. Other existing technology doesn’t have such quick fixes. While biometric fingerprint scans have become more common on modern devices such as mobile phones, they still present hygiene issues when used on shared devices or at office entrances.
Facial recognition is one touch-free, albeit controversial, option that is increasingly being used in commercial and residential buildings around the world. Longer-term, companies may adapt this technology if COVID-19 makes facial recognition technology more widely accepted or explore other touch-free biometric scanners such as palm or even vein recognition.
There’s growing demand to not only keep employees safe but to keep buildings as secure as possible. Facial recognition technology offers a quick and seamless way to verify who’s coming in and out of the building. We’re all familiar with voice-recognition technology, like Alexa and Siri and we expect to see these technologies to enter our workplace soon. It will only be a matter of time before we can book meeting rooms or control the lights with our voice.
Regardless of the tools being used, cost will be a sticking point and how well employees respond to these new technology solutions. Data privacy, for example, is one contentious area. There have long been concerns around personal data privacy for this technology but in the post-COVID world, health and safety are arguably taking priority. Users are more open to trade data privacy for tangible gains in experience, safety, and productivity.
Another area to consider in the post pandemic world is the rise of personal wearables where organizations adopt such technology to drive social distancing measures in the workplace. Lanyard based beacons which beep or watch-based sensors which vibrate are already in use in various sectors for example, Rombit.
The Next Wave
As homes steadily embrace smart technology, offices are rushing to catch up. Growing numbers of homes now use technology to control temperature and lighting and manage security – as well as boasting connected appliances. As people value convenience, and become more comfortable with new technologies, workplaces will need to adapt to this digital shift. COVID-19 may accelerate this move.
People are used to a certain ease of functioning in domestic life and expect a similar experience in the office. The smart home illustrates some of the trends that will unfold in the smart office in the future. Voice assistants are among the most popular home technology. In the workplace, it is not as prevalent but that could change as voice assistants become more indispensable for domestic tasks and hygiene concerns encourage a contactless environment.
But while we are not going to see major changes over night, it has taken a pandemic to change the face of office technology and bring new features that could make our work life more efficient, productive and healthy.