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People power

Mark Hazelwood, MD of Active Workspace Management, argues that digital tech isn’t just about making a building smart – it’s about making user interaction smarter too

The real and tangible benefits that flow from the adoption of an internet of things (IoT) solution often go unrealised. That may partly be because boards are not fully aware of the potential value of such solutions. The application of sensors to engineering assets or to space in general tends to flow from specific needs. So it might be useful to restart the conversation, focused not so much on optimising the assets in a building, but on optimising the people who work in it. Can we create a simple mechanism that puts people at the centre of an IoT solution, while still delivering financial gain?

There is an opportunity to use IoT technology in a way that gets people interacting with the workspace in a much better way. Let’s not just make the building smart – let’s make user interaction smarter too. Some argue that focusing technology on people creates a ‘big brother is watching you’ concern. We need to move the debate on to a better question: how can technology make your working day better? This fits well with the growing trend for FM to be more customer focused.

Outside of work, people are increasingly engaging with smart home IoT solutions for a myriad of applications, from Hive for heating to Alexa and even IoT kettles. We can apply this lesson to the work environment – when technology is cost effective, and simple to install and use, it can improve your life.

Most of us are used to apps that carry out all sorts of tasks. What if we could interact with our buildings in a similar way? Solutions based on user-friendly apps could apply to all kinds of buildings, not just new ones. They would also be affordable – certainly compared to solutions based on modifying assets. Retrofitting sensors in order to gather the data that drives IoT solutions is a big barrier in terms of cost on the road to becoming smart.

As with home technology and apps based on mobile devices, the starting point must always be: is this easy and intuitive to use? Does it help me? Will I use it again? I know if I downloaded an app to my personal smartphone, only to find it required specialised knowledge or a manual to get any use from it, I would simply delete it. But that’s the norm in facilities management. A building occupant often needs knowledge of HVAC to report that they are cold.

But combine an app with near field communication (NFC) or a beacon, and we can start to provide people with contextual information as they interact with their building’s resources. The user interface can be greatly simplified – menus for use in a catering environment, or one-click access to AV support, because the system knows where they are. In an agile environment the unfamiliar can become familiar, with users supported as they move around the building. This type of technology has been in use for some time in retail, so why not in the workplace?

It’s about shifting the emphasis from efficient use of the asset (although this is still relevant) to meeting the needs of people. Where sensors are used to monitor desk occupancy, for example, it’s usually about maximising utilisation of the building portfolio. But what the user needs to know is: where am I most likely to get a desk when I arrive at the office? A well-designed app could not only tell them, it could also book the desk. If we are entering a world where FM needs to become more customer-centric, maybe this is the angle we need to consider when contemplating the implementation of new technology in a building.

I’m not suggesting one huge app that does everything in the workspace. It’s more about a basket of great apps that do small things exceptionally well – which is what we’re accustomed to on our mobile devices. We shouldn’t attempt to second guess what users might want to do with the tech – they should be allowed to decide for themselves. Hopefully the initial wow factor will help drive uptake of the new solutions. (There are already some great apps out there for workplace users if you look, including Amazon with its business version of the Alexa intelligent personal assistant).

It’s important not to lose sight of whose agenda you’re serving. Is this truly a wow for the customer, or is it just incredibly exciting if you happen to work in FM? The benefit to users should be clear before you embark on app-based solutions. This might require stepping out of an industry mindset to make sure your solution is something that people will actually use.

The overall premise is quite simple. If people are given tools enabling them to interact easily with their environment, the value of that space must increase. Companies occupy and fit out buildings to achieve a particular goal. By improving the way people interact with that investment, it must assist in aligning FM delivery with corporate objectives.

There is an opportunity here for a conversation that moves beyond FM norms, creating a more compelling case for investment and a clearer perception of the value of FM services to the building and the organisation. At the end of the day, people are more interesting than buildings.

People will adopt new technology, but we need to get smarter about bringing users into the smart buildings debate, and draw more lessons from the revolution in technology that is already happening in the home. FMs need to be able to say: you know that stuff you do at home? We’re going to do that for you while you’re at work.

About Sarah OBeirne

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