Practical workplace tech: How to use your phone to unlock office doors

Building a responsive workplace isn’t easy. With so many options available, it’s important to experiment and iterate with new tech to get it right. In our new blog series, Practical Workplace Tech, we’ll share some of the solutions we’ve developed at Envoy, what we’ve learned works (and doesn’t), and provide practical guidance to bring these solutions to life in your workplace.

We’ve all used one: the venerable office door access badge. You might’ve even used one of those retractable badge holders attached to your belt. They’re easy, they’re ubiquitous — they’re the status quo. But they’re also a pain to manage, easily lost, and unsafe: many of the door access cards in use in the US use old technology that is trivial to clone with a $10 tool from Amazon.

Beyond that, badges and keys are simply old-school. The smart home trend has seen major growth in smart lock products, starting with clever retrofit solutions from companies like August that could be installed by a homeowner in minutes. Now, we are seeing this trend with every major residential door lock manufacturer offering a smart lock solution. We’re not far away from a future where our phone will open the doors to our house, our apartment, our car, and our office.

When Envoy moved to our new office 18 months ago, we opted to go badge-free and install Kisi door access control. The building management admired the system so much that we worked together to install Kisi across the entire building, replacing the aged legacy badge system that was currently in place.

PRO TIP: We installed Kisi, but there are a few companies that offer similar systems. Depending on your situation and installation limitations, one of these other options might be a better choice for you.

How does it work?

  1. Install the hardware. The controller connects to your doors and the internet, and badge readers are installed at each door. Kisi can recommend an installer in your area.
  2. Setup users, groups, and access rules. Users need to download the Kisi app and log in. For most users, very little training is necessary.
  3. Your phone is your key card. Walk up to the door within about a foot, wait a few seconds, and—voila!—the door unlocks. For doors without badge readers, open the app and swipe to unlock specific doors.

So, why go badge-free?

This is still a new trend, and companies that decide to go badge-free are decidedly on the cutting edge. But here are the practical reasons we used when making the decision to switch.

As an admin, I love it because:

  • Ease of management. Onboarding and offboarding are pain points for any IT team. Eliminating the step of assigning and delivering key cards makes the process faster and easier. With Kisi, a built-in integration automatically pulls users from our Google directory and the users receive an email to set up the Kisi app on their device. An online management portal makes configuration easy and allows me to quickly set up things like time-based restrictions and access groups.
  • Increased security. The communication between the badge reader and the phone is very secure; and unlike badge cards, phones can’t be easily cloned. Most importantly, going badgeless reduces our risk exposure by eliminating badges as a possible security point-of-failure.
  • Integrations and data. Kisi has a modern REST API that allows me to build integrations or create a more seamless workplace experience, and analyze usage data easily to understand trends about my workplace.
  • Installation flexibility. Since there’s an associated app on users’ phones, you don’t need to install badge readers at every door. For those doors, users simply open the app and choose the door to unlock. This saves on cost and makes initial installation faster. In our case, we broadened our adoption of readers at points of entry as we learned which doors had higher traffic.

Employees love it because:

  • One less thing to worry about. Their phone is their key card. No need to carry around a separate key card, or lose a key card. For employees who still want to use a card, Kisi allows us to configure other cards to work as your Kisi card, like your Clipper transit card or even your tap-enabled credit card.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket. With Kisi, you can keep your phone in your pocket or your bag, approach the door, wait for a second, and it unlocks. No more “badge dance” to hip-check the card reader next to the door.
  • Multiple offices, same Kisi app. When an employee goes to visit our Kansas City office, they can be automatically provisioned access to that building, no extra key card or extra steps required.

It’s not without its challenges

Going badgeless, on the whole, has been great. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

  • Installation. We had to replace all door badge readers and controllers with Kisi devices. Luckily we were retrofitting a building with existing access control, so all doors already had electric strikes running back to a control room with battery backups. Kisi devices use network cable to provide data and power-over-Ethernet (POE) so we had to run and/or redirect Cat5+ cables to each door. See below for an extra challenge installing Kisi in our elevators.

PRO TIP: Installing network-connected badge readers (or similar equipment like IP cameras) in an elevator? Read my detailed writeup of our issues, and eventual success, installing Kisi in our two elevators.

  • Ongoing cost vs. fixed costs. Most legacy access control systems don’t have an ongoing cost, but with badgeless access control, companies must provide a cloud service that’s extremely reliable. This means that you’re on the hook for ongoing service fees, like any other SaaS service in your IT portfolio.
  • Onboarding adjustments. Going badgeless is new for most employees, so it’s important that your Day 1 onboarding is adjusted to include time to get the app installed and provide a basic how-to.
  • Contractors are harder to setup. In the past we might assign a generic card for a contractor to use during a job; but with Kisi, anyone with access needs a real, verified email address. Some vendors have embraced using the Kisi system, either through email-based, time-limited “quick unlock” links, or installing the Kisi app themselves, but for others, we created an email alias ([email protected]) that we could assign to users who were not interested in using their phone, and then assigned cards to them. We can still define unique users and limit access by using Gmail quick aliases like [email protected]
  • It’s not flawless (yet). When the hands-free opening works, it feels like magic. But sometimes it takes a few extra seconds or doesn’t work at all, requiring users to open the app and swipe to unlock the door. As the technology gets better and better, this is becoming less of an issue, but as an IT admin, we’ve had to develop and share new troubleshooting tactics like restarting your phone when it doesn’t do hands-free.
  • Internet connectivity is now even more critical. You should install a redundant internet connection to your building so that your door locks can always stay online. Each vendor provides different levels of offline capability, but functions like unlocking from the app simply won’t work if the cloud can’t talk to the on-premises controllers. We use the very affordable UniFi Security Gateway Pro to connect two ISP’s to our office network and provide automatic failover.

Go beyond badge-free

Despite these challenges, going badgeless is worth it. We’re proudly moving toward the keyless future here at Envoy, and we’re already seeing ways that this new approach opens even more doors for the workplace experience. With a more connected and responsive system, here are a few things we’ve worked on.

Siri shortcut

Using built-in iOS functionality, our CEO built a simple Siri shortcut that quickly unlocks the elevator to our floor, since it didn’t have a badge reader. Employees can easily authorize their Kisi account, and then when needed, unlock the elevator with a quick, “Hey Siri, unlock the elevator.” (Let us know if you want a copy of the script!)

Slack command

We’re big fans of Slack, so we built a simple /elevator command to allow employees to unlock the elevators temporarily for guests. 

Occupancy-driven lock schedules

With Density occupancy sensors in our office, we know how many people are in our space. This lets us move away from hard-coded unlock schedules toward a smarter workplace. Forgot to change the lock schedule for a company holiday? No problem. The office is empty so the doors stay locked.

Visitor management integration

Pre-register your guests in Envoy and they can be automatically provisioned access to certain doors during their visit. If they have an early or late meeting, they can still access the building. Or we can give access to the bike room for guests who bring a bike or need to use a locker. When they leave, access is revoked. 

A badge-free access control system is one of the best ways to push your office toward the workplace of the future. The benefits that we’ve seen as a tech team, and the wins for our employees, makes a strong case for the value of this new technology.

For more thoughts on creating a better workplace, check out my webinar with Knotel talking about the workplace of the future, and stay tuned for more posts from our Practical Workplace Tech series.

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