Last month, Property Week and Forge, powered by Yardi, held a digital think tank titled ‘Back to work with confidence’, in which they discussed the role of technology in safely getting people back in the workplace.

Yardi Forge think tank Oct 2021

Panel of experts

Carly Gibbs, head of guest experience at Chiswick Park, EnjoyWork

Martin Nestepny, head of smart workplace design and solutions, HB Reavis

Paul Speariett, co-founder, Forge, and regional director, Yardi

Sylvain Thouzeau, associate director, building performance manager, Savills

Simon Creasey, contributing editor (features), Property Week (chair)

Over the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of workers will return to the workplace. Some will be nervous having not set foot inside the workplace since March last year. What are their main concerns about returning to the office and how can these fears be overcome by building owners and managers?

Gibbs: Last year, we ran a questionnaire via our app and we found that 78% of our ‘guests’ felt comfortable about returning to the workplace, which was hugely positive for us. But it was also really important to drill down into that 22% of people who didn’t feel comfortable to find out what those challenges were.

From the feedback, we found that the major issue was around public transport and commuting to and from the office, so we’ve done a lot of work over the last year addressing that issue. We’ve introduced a cycle hub, we have added more secure bike cages across the campus and we have Brompton bikes that are bookable via our app that people can use.

We’ve also added a car parking management system and we’ve rolled out the Forge Bluepoint visitor management system across all of our buildings.

Thouzeau: There is a common set of initiatives that are very similar and can be easily applied from one building to another to alleviate the concerns of workers, and those are around increasing your cleaning regime, putting social distancing measures in place, having lots of sanitiser stations etc. However, there are also some design limitations. For instance, there are some questions and concerns around what we do with the lifts.

We found that the major issue was around public transport and commuting to and from the office

Carly Gibbs 

The bottom line is there are some quick wins and actions that we implement to follow government guidance and at the same time there are some additional initiatives that can be done. But we need to make sure that they are economically viable, add value, are practical to implement and will work in the longer term.

Speariett: Carly, Sylvain and Martin all have different buildings that they operate and manage, and I think that comes back to what we try and offer and that’s flexibility and choice, because there’s so many variables in the mix from tenants, to hosts, to occupiers, to visitors and staff coming in. So it’s important they offer that choice and flexibility, all encompassed in an overall safe framework.

I think it’s a really big and difficult challenge that these guys have to deal with on a daily basis and we just provide some of those tools to help alleviate that.

How big a role do you see technology playing in safely getting people back to the workplace? Also, are some of the changes we’re seeing in terms of larger numbers of building owners and managers adopting visitor management tools and things like car parking booking apps something that people will drop after a couple of years when the pandemic has ended or is this with us forever?

Gibbs: I think the convenience and the ease of being able to use an app to gain access to a building in a touch-free way or to use an app to help you decide how you’re going to commute, that’s here to stay.

Thouzeau: I totally agree that technology has a very important role to play in this process, but I also think it’s important to say that you should not invest in tech just for the sake of it. It’s important to make sure that technology will deliver expected outcomes and bring some added value or benefits.

I think it’s really important we’re using technology in the right way and it’s not a barrier to fix problems

Paul Speariett

Nestepny: These days, it’s so tempting to develop an application for almost everything, but the question is: does that add value to users? Because if you overwhelm them with so much information, it’s counterproductive. So it [technology] always needs to have a sense. Convenience is really the word. We call it ‘shy tech’ – so the user should not even recognise that there is something like an application running. The preference is that the building is smart enough and is able to make decisions and perform the necessary actions.

Speariett: I think it’s really important that when we’re using technology we’re using it in the right way and it’s not a barrier to fix problems. I think we sometimes trip over ourselves in our need to use technology.

It comes back to listening and understanding what the problem is, defining it really clearly and making sure that we’re using technology in the right way. And then it’s making sure that it is more compelling to use and making sure we are extrapolating all of those benefits within a building.

What are the main tech tools you see coming to the fore? How big an issue is interoperability between the different products out there and is a one-stop-shop solution available?

Speariett: Generally speaking, there isn’t a one-stop-shop solution. You have to accept that there are different solutions and there’s a best in breed in everything you do. The key is ensuring that the products you use are open enough to allow you to connect them to other products to create the value. That’s really important and we’ve seen that shift even in things like the access control market, which traditionally were very siloed, traditional systems that would not be open. However, they have accepted they have to be open for people like us to help create automated passes, for example. So we’ve definitely seen that technology change.

Gibbs: We are very much at the front end of that example of trying to use the right technology in the right way to get the most efficient system for our end users – our guests – but also to ensure that we have the right data at the end of it to actually build upon and develop the technology use going forward as well, which is a challenge.

Covid tech office

I think one of the big things to highlight around this has been the way that we work with our partners that we use for these different technology systems. Until now, it’s been quite siloed, in terms of the functionality of the technology, but also in terms of the way these providers work. But we’ve always been very much about partnership working and I think that’s one of the big things that we’ve really seen over the last year and a half that has accelerated. There is more of an openness among providers to talk, discuss and work with other providers as well to actually get more benefit and get more return at the end of it.

The desire to be more collaborative across different providers has been a real positive and is something that we really value and ultimately I think it will end up with an improved service for the end user.

Nestepny: One of the big challenges we face is that technology is progressing so fast that what you are developing today won’t be fit for purpose tomorrow. So you need to constantly develop your product and your solution.

For the technical architect, it’s really complicated to design a solution today if the building is going to be completed three years from now, so you need to really be looking forward to see how the technology is going to evolve. Will what you design be open enough that you will be able to integrate it with new requirements that might pop up?

The key is to build it [tech], install it and manage it in a way that causes as little disruption as possible

Martin Nestepny

We need to learn to co-operate and integrate many different technologies and applications in a reasonable way, which is not going to cost a fortune, and where the implementation project is not going to take years. So it needs to be fast deployment and constant evolution.

Thouzeau: Historically, our industry typically worked in silos, but now we are moving to a more convergent approach between different systems. The partnership approach with all different partners is very important, because you need to be able to work very closely with them and develop the right integration. The tech space is moving very fast and there is lots of innovation.

We need to be in position to make sure that the tech ecosystem for a building or even across a portfolio can very easily adapt and change from one solution to another when it is required. And it always needs to be focused on the end users, the customers and the different stakeholders who are involved to make sure that we always get the best for them.

Speariett: I have a question for Sylvain, Carly and Martin. What happens when buildings age? You might have a new building today that’s great and has got all the latest sensors etc, but if technology becomes so important, what happens to that technology when that building ages and how do you utilise it?

Nestepny: The average age of the technology we’re housing in our projects is three years. But it’s not only about the lifecycle of the of the technology itself – it’s about how you design the whole construction and the way you are going to implement the technology. Is it accessible? Is it maintainable? What’s the total cost of ownership?

There is a cost obviously to implementing tech, but it is something that has huge benefits

Sylvain Thouzeau

You might have the best technology in the world today, but you need to maintain, you need to upgrade and you need to do some kind of service maintenance stuff, and if the technology is buried deep in the structure of the building then you have a problem because you will need to cause some disruption to the building. The key is to build it, install it and manage it in a way that causes as little disruption as possible and is as upgradable as possible.

Gibbs: We have 1.8m sq ft of office space across the site and the buildings have not been built within the last five years, so there is slightly older technology within them.

I think it’s about creating a productive workplace and technology is just one element of it. If you can’t keep up to date with the latest technology the whole time you have to look at what other processes and plans you can put in place to enhance that technology and work alongside it.

Thouzeau: There is a huge gap between new developments and existing assets from a tech perspective. The way I see it is tech is part of the building and it should be fully integrated with the building and the system within it. This is where you need to have a strategy and you need to find the right balance with the different stakeholders involved. There is a cost obviously to implementing tech, but it is something that has huge benefits.