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The Future of Workplace Technology Trends


Editor's Note: The following blog is a transcription of "Future of Work Tech Trends" episode 15 of IFMA's Connected FM podcast. This podcast addresses the predictions on which workplace technologies organizations are expected to invest in 2023. Learn how organizations are turning to certain technologies more now in their effort to make a better use of their workplaces. Hanna Graziano is the Sr. Director of Solutions Consultants at FM:Systems, and Robert Norin is the Vice President of Global Sales Enablement at FM:Systems. 

Top tech challenges for returning to work

Rob: My name is Rob Norin. I've been in the industry, you know, over 20 years, joined by Hanna Graziano. And we're gonna be talking through what we expect to see in the future workplace today. So Hanna, you and I have worked together a long time, and you, in particular, have the opportunity to speak with a lot of people in our industry, facilities and space management and real estate professionals on a daily basis.

One thing we've been hearing again and again is about going back to the office or companies wanting to have either a few days a week for employees or maybe certain employees at certain locations. I've heard a bunch of challenges, but I'm really interested to hear—what kind of top challenges or big challenges are you hearing about or roadblocks and what are you seeing often?

Hanna: Yeah, great question, Rob. It's really evolved over the past few years, right? The world has changed a lot in the last three years. The way that we interact with our workspaces has really kind of just been turned upside down. So I think if I had to pick out one thing that kind of stands out the most, while it seems simple, I think it's really a lack of understanding of what space a company has and how it's being used by their employees.

They may have an idea of how it was used three years ago, prior to the pandemic when employees were in office much more frequently. But now as they're coming back to the office, it’s understanding what employees are in which locations and what needs they have as far as when they come into the office.

And without kind of that critical space data, it's really hard for organizations to make strategic decisions let alone on their portfolio or the technology they use to enable it. So yeah, I think that's what sticks out the most. Curious, what you've been hearing, Rob?

Rob: A lot of the same. I think, people had an idea of what they were gonna try and do as a result of people coming back to the office. And a lot of times that shifts as we've seen people getting used to working from home and things like that, not wanting to come back. We had a great resignation.

My big question is—are you seeing a trend in technology that's lacking for the companies and folks you're talking to? Are they missing something or do they generally have things in place that's just not the right setup? Or what are you seeing there?

Technology trends in facility management

Hanna: That's a great point because really when you think about some of these global, large organizations down to your medium or smaller businesses, a lot of them may have had technology in place, that was maybe segmented but not giving them a holistic picture of the portfolio. Or maybe they had a great system in place.

But as the landscape has evolved and organizations are really coming back into the office, I think the use of those systems or how they need the systems to function may not be up to par as it was previously. And I think that's something that we'll continue to see, changing technological needs and as we uncover, how individuals will come back to the office.

Curious if you're seeing any differences?

Rob: I'm seeing a lot of trial and error, seeing what works and it's picking up bits and pieces and also, people looking for what is working across, different areas of their portfolio. Right? One size doesn't fit all, even within a company.

I've seen a lot of changes in the way people find in reserve space. I feel like three years ago we were always in the office. You and I were in the same office, right? And what we would do is book an outlook or room and more or less, most people were there with us, and if not, then we could add in a virtual meeting.

So I think that's gonna continue to evolve because it's not the same anymore. People may or may not be in the office, right? They may be at a different location. It could be remote or different time zones, so on and so forth. I think we've done a lot of hiring or a lot of companies have done a lot of hiring that the virtual experience is expected.

The rise of the virtual, hybrid workplace

The virtual work life is expected. So I think we're going to continue to see that just change and fit the needs as they come up. I do see a huge increase in the demand for what I would say is pretty traditional space management and also a lot more focus on assets these days.

And you can consider space an asset for a company, but assets as far as equipment for individuals, or building, supporting building equipment. Do they have the right setup for workspaces or touchdown spaces in conference rooms? Because what I've heard is chairs are disappearing, docking stations, monitors, and things like that.

And it's really hard to keep track of. So that’s one of the trends I'm seeing. I'm curious, what are you seeing people focusing on when they're looking for software now? Are they making a change? Are they looking to enhance? What's your take? 

Hanna: Piggybacking on what you were just speaking about, you mentioned previously when we were in the office, it was typically that if you're in the office, you're gonna have an in-person meeting or you're gonna have a virtual meeting.

I think now really every meeting is expected that there may be some people in person, and there may be some people remote. So it is really critical, to be able to support a holistic, technological environment where maybe we have some employees who are using PCs, and others are using Macs. So having an environment or the setup in the office that they could all use, or know which conference rooms and workstations they would be able to leverage with their technology.

Technology supporting sustainability in the workplace

So I think that's a big thing is the employee experience and I think we're gonna get further into that. But the other primary focus that I think that was starting to become relevant within the past five, 10 years, but really has taken off in recent years, is a focus on sustainability.

And whether that means tracking the organization's own emissions and waste and making sure that they're making decisions that are responsible for the environment, but also in how organizations provide safe workspaces for their employees. Coming off of the pandemic, we really saw a really close focus on making sure rooms and our workspaces are sanitized.

And I think everyone's had enough talk about that, but I think another unique use case, and actually a client that I was speaking to in California recently, they're starting to roll out environmental sensors that track their air quality, their noise levels, the light levels, all of the above.

And the reason that they started to down this path is due to their recent California wildfires. Some employees have an apprehension to come into the office if the air quality is poor, or they say that it's better at their own homes. So as a way of making employees feel safe and enticing them back to the office, they're starting to roll out live dashboards that any employee could access and see what is the air quality.

So I think that's, and I could go on and on about this, but I think that's one of the biggest shifts is that sustainability and kind of the cleanliness of our buildings and how we impact the environment is definitely more so at the forefront than an afterthought at this point. 

Rob: I agree. I've heard a lot of interest in the environmental sensors. We provide those sensors and we all have air things that do a really great job at that as well. And I actually heard a funny story recently that a company was trying to push to have employees install them at their homes, right? So they could give them peace of mind. I don't think that was ever really viable. 

But it is taking the idea that, hey, this is important. People do care. And just that, “Hey, do we have the right environmental or oxygen levels?” People work better. It makes a lot of sense. So, I'm certainly seeing that.

Workplace experience affects employee experience 

I guess that kind of goes into the employee experience. You mentioned that before. And enabling people to thrive in a hybrid workforce. I'm also seeing, ease of use, few clicks, intuitive solutions, and I think of a hotel.

And the modern work office work environment, right? When you go to a hotel, you expect that you can check in and you also expect a certain amount or can count on a certain amount of standardization, right? And accommodation. I can book the room the same way. I can expect when I get there, there'll be internet that there'll be coffee, hopefully.

There's some cutbacks. Talk about that another time. But also if I'm missing something at a hotel, I know who to call. And I think that's what people are really looking for now, when as they're starting to move back into the office and in what they'll expect going forward. Would you agree?

Hanna: Yeah, most definitely. The hotel analogy immediately brought to mind some recent conversations we've had with clients. It's actually come up, we wanna provide that holistic employee experience and things like a way for them to order from Uber Eats or GrubHub. Things that I would've never dreamed about being a part of a workplace or space management and workplace management conversation.

But it's really shifting the focus onto, “How can we get people excited to come into the office and what tools and solutions can we provide so that it's a superior experience?” I think, gone are the days of having a stocked kitchen and a ping pong table as what entices you into the office.

But yeah, I would say most definitely that the need for a seamless employee experience is definitely at the forefront.

Using data to make strategic portfolio decisions

And I think, on top of that, enabling employees with these tools can not only provide them with a better experience and provide employee delight, but it also provides the organization very rich data and insights such as who's coming into the office and who's reserving space trends in different utilization across departments or locations.

Getting back to that rich data that you need to make strategic portfolio decisions. 

Rob: I completely agree. And one thing, people always get caught up in what I call “fancy dashboards,” right? And you can have a lot of really great-looking reports and dashboards, but I think a lot of people are challenged with really understanding what that data means.

We've seen companies take, or I've seen companies, wanting to have a more consultative approach when it comes to their solutions because they just haven't had to use this type of data before. And, with their evolving landscape and how things are shaping up, they're turning to experts, right? 

There's a lot of companies out there. We're obviously in one of them. But really leaning on the experts which is a good thing, because I think you and I could both agree we've seen when people don't do that and how it may not end up exactly how they like.

Hanna: That's a great point. And it is, it's been very interesting. I think there's different themes that we're seeing in how different organizations do it, but I would 100% agree that now more than ever, companies are leaning into each other, into the consultants or experts leaning on that.

That is the most recent trend that is going on because it is ever evolving and really more quickly than ever. I think if you're okay with it, Rob, I'm gonna switch gears a little bit, because I think this kind of plays well into the office experience that we've been discussing. My team has been seeing a renewed focus on facility management.

Things such as your work requests, so that employee experience side of it. How can I submit a break-fix ticket? But then also more of a focus on how our equipment is performing now that we have more people back in the office. Is that something that you've seen at all? 

Technology maintenance post-pandemic

Rob: Yes. And I love that you brought that up.

I've been paying attention to this for quite some time now, and obviously, I'm not the only one. If you think about it, for three years now, basically facilities teams, in a lot of cases, have been operating in skeleton crews. And, in some cases, they've had to reduce the facility staff and the people who are actually operating buildings.

Now that people are coming back in and working in the offices, using supplies and requesting certain things, looking for different spaces, the need for facilities professionals is coming back in a pretty steep demand. And it's not just the facilities tickets, but it's the overall maintenance. 

You think that these buildings really haven't been used in a couple years, so the critical systems maybe they didn't pay as much attention to cleaning. It was a lighter schedule than it is now, so having to ramp up pretty quickly and get people, if you did have to downsize facilities teams, is important.

The same goes for preventative maintenance like having the right tracking in place and making sure everything works when people show up. It also just goes back to the technology that's being used. If you think about it this way—laptops, monitors, cameras, everything we use in our daily work life, whether it's at home or at the office is now probably three years old.

So, I've also seen companies struggle with, “Hey, what do we actually need to upgrade and update?” And that's not just technology, it's also furniture, right? Things like that people don't think about but can be really daunting. 

And that's why, going back to the asset piece, making sure you understand or that companies understand what they have and where it is and what condition it's in becomes important. Cause that kinda drives what they might invest in, right? To make it a better work experience when they're in the office. But out of that, do you have any examples you've seen? 

Space planning, strategic planning and investing in technology

Hanna: Yeah, so I think a few. The deriving the data from buildings and using that to make strategic decisions. I'm trying to think of a good example off of the facility side, but I think really holistically having a better understanding of your equipment, who it's assigned to and when it may retire, not only helps you, the organizations forecast better financially, but also understanding how to outfit offices for our employees.

From the space planning, kind of real estate planning side of things, I think a big thing that we've been seeing is the use of different modeling or strategic planning tools to either phase reentry as employees came back over the past year and now restocking or reclassifying some of our space to accommodate hybrid employees.

We may just be shifting departments around, but using those different strategic tools to then say, okay, this is the best option for us. This is the route we should go as far as the types of space we should have. There's one large banking client that we've been working with recently, and they are doing a big study right now using occupancy sensors.

So they are tracking different types of furniture across one floor of one of their buildings, and taking that data to understand what types of seating and what types of workstations should be provided for employees. And then using that rich data to roll out, and investing in office furniture is not cheap.

So going about it in a way that they know they will not only make employees happy, but they're making sound financial decisions. I think those are two examples that really come to mind.

Rob: I hear about the strategic planning or stacking and what do we have and where, all the time. And that's where I started myself. So it's near and dear to my heart. It's challenging though, right? Because there's a lot of things that go into it. 

I'm actually working with a client right now. And they're pretty sophisticated. They're very sophisticated in the way they're approaching their people getting back into the office and also their real estate portfolio as a whole and looking down the road.

It's a financial institution. I will say that they're painfully understaffed. It's a couple people who are tasked with really maintaining day-to-day facilities and real estate operations, which you can imagine is a huge undertaking. One thing that they've done to help understand is taking a different approach on what we might think of historically as a chargeback report and an allocation report based on cost center.

So what they're doing is using our system, our solutions to gather the information around who is assigned to what spaces so on and so forth. But then bringing in data from a badging system and overlaying that, right? So it's a very granular way to look at, say again, kinda that traditional chargeback report, so it's not just month by month, but how much you are actually using.

And when, which is just as important. But that's compounded by a few things, right? They have ever-changing spaces, and keeping up with floor plans and changes can be difficult. But they've been pretty successful. And it's one of the more interesting use cases and more successful, I think, applications I've seen of the data and technology they have available.

Have you seen anything like that, obviously it's not exactly sensors that's come up quite a bit, but any other stories that you may have come across using newer technology? 

Hanna: Yeah I think you hit the nail on the head with aggregating the data from different sources.

I think that's really the biggest thing or biggest trend that I've been seeing is how can we leverage and how can we link our different solutions together to alleviate the time and efforts spent by the facilities and real estate team, but also how to make it easier for our employees to interact with the solutions.

I think there's a variety of different center technologies that are out there. It's definitely not a one size fits all landscape. And I think those have very unique and great applications depending on what the organization is trying to achieve. I don't know if I exactly answered your question, Rob, but I think the greater need for interconnected systems is definitely a big trend.

Rob: I think you're dead on Hannah. That's part of every conversation I've been having, at least for the past year, is being able to connect different systems. Let me ask you this—looking forward what is an area or a solution in a particular area that every company of any size needs to have in place?

Or maybe there's a top three as it relates to real estate and facilities. What's your opinion? 

Top technology solutions every company needs to invest in

Hanna: That is a hard one. I think I can do a top three. We've spent a lot of time talking today about employee engagement and employee wellness, providing tools that make the employee feel engaged with the organization.

A part of the organization's mission, and I think there's a large part that facilities play in that, is the culture of the office and how the office is used by those employees. So I think that's definitely a big one: employee engagement. I may be biased, but I think that without a solid real estate and space planning solution, it's very hard for an organization to make financially sound decisions around their space and around acquiring or getting rid of space.

And then I think if I had one fringe one, we're hearing a lot about AI and how it's starting to play into a variety of industries. Your everyday life even. And I expect to see much more done there in the facilities realm as well, but, curious what your top three would be or if they would be different?

Rob: I think if somebody in a company doesn't have a way to track their space and keep it updated in a sustainable way today, that's something I would go out and get. I would make sure that the employee experience supports being able to find the right contact, submit tickets, and reserve rooms.

I'm thinking about my personal experiences showing up in our own office and having to try and find batteries for my mouse or something like that. I didn't even know who to contact or how to reserve a room, which obviously I know how to do that in our office.

But I think you're right. The AI component of this is gonna be critical. We expect it, right? Just in our everyday lives. I think it's becoming so common that we get suggestions on here's what you should do, let it be from an online ordering platform or anything else. 

We do expect a certain level of intelligence behind our technology. And I think we're gonna see, especially in the United States who's been slow to adopt sensors and actually tracking of folks and how they move throughout a facility, is gonna pick up a lot. I think that's gonna continue to pick up.

I will say there is one thing that kind of came top of mind as we were going through that. One thing I see people struggling with a lot is simply floor plan management, whether it be AutoCAD or Penley or Revit.  Keeping those things up to date, knowing where they are, general management, and then actually applying them and making use of the data.

Therefore we've seen a big increase in requests for our company or others to actually take on that task for folks. Because in a lot of cases, they don't have that in-house experience. And we're seeing a lot of changes in layouts and how space is set up right than we did three years ago.

Hanna: The one thing that I'll add there, thinking about the floor plans, definitely agree with everything you've mentioned. I think another thing that we hadn't necessarily seen before but are definitely seeing more recently is making the floor plans more user-friendly or more for the end users.

So thinking about how can we add icons to show where different amenities are provided, or can we color code by department so employees know where they should go. I think that came up occasionally before, but I think that again just thinking about the employee experience. I would definitely agree with that. 

And I think my biggest takeaway from our conversation today is really the ever-evolving landscape of managing our building space facilities. And it's changing every day, but I think that having the right technology in place to scale as changes occur is one of my biggest takeaways.

Rob, what about you? 

Rob: That's a good question, Hannah. And that's a tough one. I think my biggest takeaway is coming back to the realization that this is not a new topic or a new challenge or a new problem. We've had this problem of how to make the best use of our space and make it most appealing for our people. It has existed since offices have existed.

It's just the challenge of adopting the best sustainable technology. And I think we've talked a lot about those different options during this, but the fact that it hasn't changed. I think the past three years of the pandemic have definitely shifted things and maybe propelled us forward much faster than we expected, but it was gonna go that way.

So it's just that trend we've seen over many years may be a little bit accelerated, but it's still there and that's why you and I are here, 

Hanna: Flexibility is king, that's for sure. Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time today, Rob. It was great chatting with you.

Rob: Thank you.

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