The smart workplace part 1: Envisioning the office of the future

Imagine an office where easy-to-book meeting rooms know how many people are present, can quickly adjust the climate, and sense when they’ve been ghosted––automatically freeing up the room for the next crucial talk.

Think about a world where remote employees feel equipped and empowered to seamlessly work with their coworkers as if they are in the same physical place without distraction. In this office of the future, every space is flexible, highly-productive, wireless, and transformative. The reality? We aren’t that far off, but getting there will be a challenge.

In part 1 of my interview with Matt Harris, Head of Workplace Tech at Envoy, we discuss the importance of smart workplaces, the latest trends, and the evolving nature of office life.

How are office environments evolving?

There are a couple of main trends we are seeing. One is the move to the open office, but we are finally realizing that the open concept is more nuanced. It’s more about dynamic work environments and workspaces. This shift involves addressing the need for a variety of different working spaces: for example, soft seating and comfortable spaces, closed off dark places, warm and well-lit places. We need to take that open environment and make space for those places to exist.

The second shift I’ve observed is the desire for employees to have more control over their space. We talk a lot about the smart home influencing the desire for the smart office. People have smart devices in their home, and they want to have that control in the office as well. This applies to all parts of the office; door locks, lights, windows, heating and cooling, desk settings––all of that.

What do you do to make remote work easier for employees?

Offices are looking more and more like co-working spaces. Coming into the office to work isn’t the default anymore. We have a lot of remote employees, and even local employees often work from home, so we have to be as remote-friendly as possible.

The trick to remote-friendly spaces is you have to think about both sides of the meeting experience. You have to do the work in the office to make sure every conference room is video-enabled, but you also have to support the remote person. What do they need in order to be seen and heard?

Beyond having video conferencing as a default option for all meetings, we use Slack a lot. We have a donut bot in Slack that encourages new hires to meet with their coworkers. This applies to both local and remote employees. When we bring people on site, which we do twice a year, it’s a great chance to build tight connections that can grow. We have an all-hands meeting every Friday at a time where everyone can attend, and we’ve invested in a high-quality AV setup so that remote participants can participate as seamlessly as someone here in SF.

The other thing that we do is try to avoid making ad hoc decisions in hallway conversations. We work hard to create a culture around that. We’re not going to make big decisions around the water cooler without looping everyone in.

Where do you see the future of workplace tech going?

Workplace tech is going in the direction of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT): sensors and data will be huge. It’s very costly to run power and network to sensors, devices, and screens around an office. Thousands of devices are connected, and we need a robust network that can handle that.

To do this, we have to look at new technology, like wireless or low power devices. Everything is fighting to be wireless, but this still isn’t an easy thing to do. Our challenge is to implement IoT in a privacy-minded way. Doing so involves making sure the focus is on utilization and optimization, rather than who is in the room and monitoring their activity.

The biggest question is, ‘how do we amplify our limited resources to support this interesting, fast-paced work that is happening?’ It’s one of the biggest challenges of workplace tech because it focuses on helping people be productive, do better work, be happy, be fulfilled, and not have to worry about systems working. This is shifting our thinking beyond the traditional expectation of IT to ‘keep the lights on,’ towards a more collaborative approach to partnering with every other business unit.

We want to be more predictive in our efforts, pulling in our data and using AI to detect issues before they become issues. There should be tools or systems that are smart enough to do this. Machine learning is more than a buzzword, but it’s making a huge difference in every area and workplace tech is one of them.

Why is it important for offices to evolve?

Every office is changing, not just tech companies. Machine manufacturing plants and nail salons use Envoy because they are modernizing like everyone else. They have compliance requirements and challenging security questions they have to consider, too. Just as the nature of work is changing to be more digital, more connected, more global, offices will look and feel very different in 10-20 years.

Want to hear more from Matt and other industry experts, about the future of workplace tech, and happen to be in the Miami area? Check out his panel discussion at the Future of Real Estate 2019 Tech Summit on May 14 at 3:40pm.