Accelerating Change - The Digitization of the Workplace

It has been 103 days since my personal journey into lockdown began, or rather, ‘stay at home’ in Arizona, as we were afforded more flexibility than other states.
What have I learned?
  1. My least favorite phrases are “the new normal,” “the great work from home experiment” and “the six-foot office.”
  2. Although I always work from home when I am not traveling, I miss the buzz of the office environment, the casual collisions it creates and the sense of being it enforces.
  3. I have never seen innovation to the extent this period of time has created.
  4. The pandemic will accelerate the digitization of the workplace.
  5. Any email from someone I do not know commencing “Dear Simon, in these troubled/chaotic/unprecedented times, firstly I hope your family is healthy/well/safe” gets immediately deleted.

My personal view is that we have seen a lot of reactionary thought and marketing dollars go into predicting something that is not predictable, without any anecdotal or empirical evidence. The desire to seem valuable (to your clients, prospects and boss) comes across more than the desire to help, and in a crisis, calm heads prevail.
We do not know what behaviors or adaptation strategies people will revert to in the long-term; and ‘long-term’ may only be until a vaccine is developed. The view that working from home or having the ability to work from where you want is a good thing has never been in dispute. However, it positively impacts performance because it provides employees a choice- not as an alternative to but as a supplement of the traditional office environment. Sometimes it is great to work from home - early meetings, focus work, family commitments etc., but other times collaboration is needed, specific equipment is required, or people may simply have the desire to connect with one another in person.
The mandate of working from home to attempt to stop the spread of a pandemic has not been a “work from home experiment.” It has been a forced “work from where you can, when you can, for as long as you can and avoid what distractions you can (or can afford to avoid).” All of our experiences are so different based on the infinite variables that make our lives unique, including financial, physical and mental health considerations.
Acceleration of Innovation
I am seeing rapid innovation and greater risk-taking in the market, which I think is great. My favorite definition of innovation has always been that “Innovation is […] the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs or existing market needs.”[1]
The unarticulated needs generated by COVID-19 are being addressed by repurposing existing tools and by creating holistic solutions using new data such as pandemic statistics and CDC and NIOSH guidelines. Companies are also trying to create solutions to new problems they do not adequately solve. One example of this is the prevalence of webinars on contract tracing that do not consider or address HIPAA regulations. This type of oversight raises concerns about the lack of flexibility or vision of the technology provider suggesting such solutions.
In my own anecdotal evidence based on close to 200 meetings, demos and discussions in the last few months, many technologies that were being driven slowly pre-COVID are going to be key going forward.
The most apparent to me is utilization data. Companies and their employees will want to know how many people are in the office, how people are using the conference rooms, what is the quality of the environment and how frequently things are cleaned.
Short-term, this need is in response to the pandemic and is public health-related. How do employers plan when to re-board? Who do employers re-board and in what order? What do employers allow people to access? What rules do employers apply? How do employers ensure workspaces are clean and therefore safe for employees to return?
Long-term, the same data can be used by workplace strategists to look at the effectiveness of activity-based work policies answering questions like, “How much space are we using?” “Are facilities well designed?” and “How much is being spent on cleaning?” Providing employees with more robust data assists them in determining where they want to work and answering questions like, “Is it hot in the office today?” “Is Sarah working today as we need to collaborate?” and, “Is the room we need available?”
But where do you start if you do not have the right technology and tools in place? I am part of a panel discussion of experts for a webinar hosted by IFMA on July 8th that will discuss the impact COVID-19 has had overall on operations and how data can drive smarter approaches from the macro to the micro level. You can register here.
Digital Design
Digital design and workplace planning was gaining prominence slowly pre-COVID, but the need for more immediate insights and flexibility as employees return to work is accelerating digitization of workplace plans. Companies with digitized plans more quickly address preparation for re-boarding, are better able to develop multiple scenarios, can thoughtfully change parameters around social distancing protocols and can create phased re-boarding plans that serve their specific employee populations.
Most importantly, firms who use digital design can easily visually communicate the resulting plans to their employees, who may be fearful of the return to the office. Long-term, digital-forward firms can re-use workplace design data developed during COVID-19 to make better decisions about how and why they design their space in certain ways moving forward and can showcase their designs to their internal business units or even to potential tenants.

Smart Offices
Office environments centered around amenities like coffee bars, recreational areas, or esoteric interests like goat yoga to increase the ‘cool’ factor in pre-COVID times relied on in-person experiences rather than smart office tools to guide an employee’s day or workflow.
Post-COVID, workplace experience tools will be core drivers of what my colleague Roy Abernathy (Executive Vice President, Workplace Strategy & Human Experience) refers to as “a day in the life” of an employee.  Having one single device that can plan an employee’s interaction with the office - from booking a space, checking on commute times, accepting visitor notifications, wayfinding to spaces or colleagues and even opening doors - will be a growing necessity.
In the future, an employee may access their device upon waking to find out if the people they need to collaborate with are scheduled to be in the office that day, what the air quality is inside the office, how long the lines in the lobby are for elevators, what is on the menu for lunch and whether the amenities needed for a productive day at the office are available.
One surprising element of this new focus on workplace planning is the resurgence in priority around room and desk booking. My first professional role in real estate was focused on defining requirements for a conference room booking system for the BBC, and 20 years later here I am again. The significance of these planning tools is possibly at the greatest level it has been since inception. Companies need them now for hot-desking, hoteling support, and tracking of cleaning routines so that environments are safe for employees, post-COVID.

Those who know me know that my default state is high positive optimism; I am confident good will come from this pandemic. I give thanks to both Steve Weikal and Carly Tortorelli as a recent webinar of theirs entitled, “Digital Transformation’s Impact on Corporate Real Estate and the Workplace” inspired some of this thought. I am excited to revisit this post next year to see how much has come true and what was epically wrong. I definitely do not profess to tell the future, but I can almost guarantee with certainty that the one place I will not be is in a six-foot office space.

SImon-Davis.pngSimon Davis
Executive Managing Director - Global Technology 

[1] Maranville, S. “Entrepreneurship in the Business Curriculum,” 1992.

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