The smart workplace part 2: Building 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 2 of my interview with Matt Harris, Head of Workplace Tech at Envoy, we discuss his unique approach to smart workplaces and how he brings cutting edge technology into the office.

How do you bring new workplace tech into your office?

I used to be a full-time software engineer, so I like to bring that experience to workplace tech. That approach involves a lot of experimentation, iteration, and data.

There are two ways new tech comes into our space. One: we see a problem that needs a solution so we seek out a way to solve it. Second: we talk to people in other offices and spaces in the industry to see what works for them and if it makes sense for us.

We recently added Density sensors that count how many people are coming in and out of our office spaces and meeting rooms. It was an aspirational install! We put in two to start, saw that it worked and was effective, and then we expanded it to the whole floor.Matt Harris@mattharris5

We then asked how it could be tied into our existing products. We are still experimenting, but now we know how many people are in a room to ideate on all the ways that simple information could be useful.

The worst case scenario? We use new tech for a while, it doesn’t work, and we decide to remove it. This happens about 35% of the time.

How will the office of the future make work easier or help people be more productive?

We talk a lot about “workplaces that work.” Things you don’t have to think about as much. We know when drinks are about to run out in the fridge without going and counting them. We often hear employees talking about pain points like it being too hot or cold, too bright or dark, the sun is blinding me––office lifestyle improvements that make it easier to get through the day.

We want to think about ways to move our work forward even more. Meeting rooms are  a core area of focus for these efforts. To be more predictable, we have to think about how we can equip meeting rooms to better handle every situation, especially when things go wrong.

Right now, meeting room troubleshooting is very manual. What can we do with more screens or devices in there? What about an SOS button people can use when they’re having trouble with technology during a meeting to bring someone in there to help quickly? We look for needs and how we can eventually address those office needs with products as the solution.

Some people have privacy concerns around the evolution of office tech. How can transparency help as offices integrate new tools and technology?

I used to work in education and student data privacy is a huge thing. The way that I train myself to think is always ‘privacy first.’

It’s fairly simple; it starts by collecting only the data you need. In engineering circles, there is a term ‘yagni,’ which means ‘you ain’t gonna need it.’ With engineering, you want to be careful that you’re not overbuilding something because you’re predicting future needs. The same concept applies to data and user privacy. Let’s bring in the bare minimum information we need to try and solve the problem then go from there.

For example, the density “cameras” aren’t actual cameras, so they can’t identify individual people. They give us a simple API call that is plus or minus one person. They tell us how many people are in a room. Then we look at what is possible with that information.

In the second phase, if we hit a barrier where we think we’ve done all we can with that non-identifiable information, what is the next step? How can we allow people to opt into something more? From a workplace tech perspective, we are never implementing something where we can’t protect our people and our users.

What is a flexible floor plan and how can offices use them to meet their changing needs?

It depends on the office. Some don’t offer much flexibility. If you design everything with temporality in mind, it allows for agile adjustments. When you have a choice between fixed furniture and furniture that can move, go with the furniture that can move. You may only move things once! Giving people the opportunity to tweak their space is important to both fit their needs and enhance productivity.

Picture your dream office. What piece of tech or software would you be most excited to see?

My big dream is wireless power. I never want to have to think about wiring something up ever again. From my perspective, that would be pretty exciting.

If I could wave a magic wand, there is a lot I’d love to do with creating a ‘virtual presence’ in the office. How do you create the water cooler moments with remote people who aren’t physically here? That would be a powerful addition to the workplace experience if we could get there.

If you like what you read, check out part 1 of my interview with Matt Harris, where we discuss the importance of smart workplaces, the latest trends, and the evolving nature of office life.