Invest in Technology to Prepare Our Workspaces for the Present and Future

With new challenges in workplace safety as we return to the office, it is time to finally use technology to make our workplaces smarter, safer, and more efficient.

For years, the vehicles most people drive to the office have, from a technology integration point of view, left the office in the dust. Many recent automobile models with a luxury technology packages can automatically detect the driver approaching, unlock the doors, start the ignition, automatically adjust to the driver’s custom preset seat height and position, calibrate the exact temperature settings, and tune the entertainment system to the driver’s preferences. When that same driver walks into a typical workspace, she will likely have a very different experience. She might spend the day shivering from too cold HVAC settings that she cannot adjust, spend 15 minutes resetting all the AV in a conference room to accommodate a 30-minute meeting, and have limited control over any other aspects of her workspace.

Workplace technology is overdue for an upgrade. And with new challenges in workplace safety urgently needing to be addressed as we return to the office, it is time to finally use technology to make our workplaces smarter, safer, and more efficient. Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with a team of workplace designers from global architecture firm HOK: Kay Sargent, Pam Light, and Adriana Rojas discussed the tech trends they see as defining the future of workplace design and a safe return to the workplace.

As HOK’s Sargent explained, this current moment is “An opportunity for the architecture and professional AV and IT worlds to finally come together” to solve this enormous challenge. She says, “We believe strongly that AV and IT are not something that should come at the end, it’s something that should be baked in from the beginning.” These are the technology trends they see coming in a post-COVID workplace.

Smart Work Points

People want and need options. Just like in their vehicles, people crave solutions that are smart and customized to their preferences. In the future, the generic assigned workstations of today will give way to smart work points. In the past, our desks were the dirtiest places in the office because they were designated as personal space that cleaning crews were forbidden to touch. That will not be acceptable in the future. Smart work points are non-assigned workspaces that can be completely sanitized between users but also customized to the employees’ needs.

Imagine if an app on the employee’s phone allowed her to see a map of the office with color coded indicators marking which work points are available and clean? She could then reserve that space with her app and the integrated technology in the workplace would automatically adjust that work point to the employee’s preset work preferences. The work point settings could also be packaged for common needs such as “designer” or “quiet focused work.”

The same concept could be applied to conference room and huddle spaces. HOK’s Rojas sees smart work points with strong technology integrations as an opportunity to bring some luxury options back into an office space at a time when people will be feeling restricted in many other ways.

Hands Free Command and Control

Pre-pandemic, touch screens were becoming ubiquitous in our spaces, from fast food restaurants to conference rooms. That trend is about to dramatically shift toward hands free command and control solutions such as voice and gesture. A person used to touch many surfaces to simply go from the parking garage to their workspace – doors, elevator buttons, and more. Each of those touch points can be retrofitted for gesture control, or with custom apps that recognize the employee to give access to a secure work area.

Tech Assistants in the Office

Tech assistants, like Alexa or Siri that many employees are accustomed to at home, can also help in creating a touch free office environment. An AI assistant can help the employee set up a meeting room, remember to record the meeting, take notes, and more tasks that used to require touching equipment in the room.

Sensors and Monitoring

Sensors and monitoring will keep us comfortable and safe in the future workspace. Viruses can travel through HVAC systems so air flow must be monitored with integrated sensors. Installing sensors and monitoring that connect the HVAC system to the IT system will enable facility managers to see if there are pinch points in air circulation that could create an issue. The same type of monitoring could be used to track the flow of people in a space and identify points where people are congregating too much and creating an unsafe situation.

Better Remote Experience in Meeting Rooms

If you ask anyone who worked remotely before the pandemic what their challenges were, it is likely the experience of attending a meeting remotely when everyone else was physically in the room, topped their list. Remote employees would often not be able to hear well, may not be able to tell who was speaking, or even see the people in the room at all. They missed the non-verbal communications and could not see notes or ideas being written on the whiteboard. Even worse, they could not be seen by those in the room and therefore possibly forgotten. Going forward, with many people likely choosing to stay remote, that poor experience will no longer be acceptable. Improving conference room technology can go a long way. Add room cameras that detect the speaker. Use smartboards so the whiteboard brainstorm is visible. These and other currently available technologies can create vastly improved meeting experiences for remote employees.

Better Work From Home

It’s premature to declare that no one will ever come back to the office. In the last few months, many employees and companies have learned they can “survive” a work from home setup. Surviving is not thriving. What many employees have been doing – working on couches and kitchen table, caring for children while working, being interrupted by family members and pets – is not sustainable in the long run. As HOK’s Adriana Rojas explains, “they have simply been running on adrenaline. In the rush to get everyone out of the office to avoid spread of infection, companies did not necessarily think through their WFH policies and procedures.”

When it is time to return to the office, just because some can cope with working from home, does not mean they should do it forever. It is important to think through the roles and needs of individuals and determine if they can do their work best from home or if they do need an office. Many employees just do not have the right space, and certainly not the right equipment to work effectively from home forever. The trend in the future will not be everyone works from home, it will be the option to work from home, if that works best for the employee, and the company carefully defines the policy and procedure for determining if it’s appropriate. Companies will also need to provide the right AV equipment to remote employees, so they have an equitable work experience to those in the office – including lighting, mics, and AV equipment that helps them to appear as professional as their in-office peers.

Recent market intelligence data has started to show that organizations are planning to invest in upgrading their workplace AV and remote work capabilities. AVIXA Senior Director of Market Intelligence Sean Wargo said, “The association’s weekly surveys of audiovisual providers, fielded in the time since the pandemic began, indicate 87 percent of respondents finding future business opportunities in conferencing and collaboration technology projects. This includes both new projects and updated existing workplaces to accommodate more remote workers and new health and safety guidelines. In 2020, conferencing and collaboration solutions accounted for the largest portion of AV spending globally, with organizations forecast to invest US$39 billion.”

Recent events make tech integration in the workspace a necessity more than a luxury. Not only does the workplace have an opportunity to catch up, but organizations now must invest in these upgrades to ensure employees feel safe.

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