The future of technology: exploring the digital workplace

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21 November 2019

Technology

Last Thursday, during Workplace Week London, we launched our partnership with Microsoft, which will explore the future of technology and its role in shaping workplaces. Offering a SWOT analysis of the current scene, four speakers appraised FM’s readiness for a digital future. Chris Moriarty reflects.

Strengths

Matthew O’Halloran of digital firm Smart Spaces took us through what’s possible today. Showcasing his organisation’s work, it struck me that the move towards a more consumer inspired working environment, powered by digital technology, is not the dream of the future, it’s the expectation of today.

Organisations are competing for the next wave of talent who are transient in nature and have higher expectations than their predecessors; and what Matthew showed us was that some, particularly landlords of new spaces, are answering that call and exploring how employee experience can be businesses’ new competitive advantage.

Matthew treated us to a demo on the digital twinning work his team are doing. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a way of mapping a physical asset via sensors to a digital platform and using data to analyse its operation. The aggregate data is useful, for example, to predict faults before they occur enabling businesses ultimately to save time and money.

With some predicting its presence in the vast majority of “internet of things” platforms as soon as next year, its not hard to see why it is presently occupying ‘proptech’ discussions; but Matthew emphasised that perhaps its real power lies in providing organisations a single point of truth. Our first, but not last, nod of the evening to the role of data.

Weaknesses

We asked Dan Clark, Head of Central Services and Assurance at the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) to give the perspective of the in-house team. Perhaps unfairly, he was asked to play villain on the night but his frustrations with the current technology discourse struck a chord with those in the room.

Like many, Dan has seen a fair number of presentations about the power and capabilities of technology, but what has so far been missing, he argued, is the business argument compelling enough to make the required investment a no-brainer; investment’s not something FM can automatically influence. Dan was seeking that ROI. His present assessment is that the access and collection of data is not strong enough of a case; data for data’s sake.

The most striking point I took from his talk was his assertion that FM has sat back in this debate. Smart Buildings (later challenged as a term in the Q&A) is a red-hot topic but our profession isn’t leading the debate. Is he right?

Opportunities

On to the art of the possible with Microsoft, as Innovation Architect David Williams took us through the tech giant’s latest thinking. There was a simple message: anything is possible. In truth, the limitations are our imagination and, echoing Dan Clark, the required investment.

Could we create an experience where no one needs a laptop to log in to their personal profile at any screen in any room at any time? Of course we could. Could we find your favourite room when you want a meeting and make sure that your favourite hot drink was waiting for you when you got there? Of course we could. But for some reason we don’t.

With only a handful of innovators exploring these possibilities, do we see Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory on how, why, and how fast new ideas and technology spread in action here. Is it fair to say that the pace of early adoption take up has been sluggish? We need these examples and David recognised this. He showed us Microsoft’s Redmond, US campus where they are experimenting with the possibilities: with 47,000 employees arriving (by car), parking is the first major hurdle everyone will face. Microsoft is using its AI powered technology to help predict volume and allocate spaces with an appreciation of the needs of employees. That’s only a taste of what’s possible. Apply that across other touchpoints in the workplace experience and the gains become very exciting.

Threats

It was down to me to close with our view of the potential threats this all presents to the profession. Our 2018 research Embracing Technology to Move FM Forward found that when presented with four possible futures, workplace and facilities professionals foresaw their tech future as a digital upgrade: the same as now with a little more tech to support us.

However, many agree that the rate of technological change is fast ushering in the fourth industrial revolution, each time shaking up the way we work. We need to be anticipating and preparing for this inevitability and open to the opportunities, as well as the threats, it presents. Our research found that tasks that we are involved with, such as change management, strategic, people management perhaps called “human work”, are unlikely to be automated. But procurement, asset management and other areas that we’re strongly connected to – basically anything that is structured and repeatable - don’t fare so well.

I explored the idea of ‘creative destruction’, an idea which describes the deliberate dismantling of established processes or technology to make way for improved methods of production; a useful concept to describe what can happen when organisations look to make a step change, it looks at how an economy actively invests in technology that is going to destroy the previous generation of technology. For me, the threat to the profession is that we wait for this to happen and then adapt, when in fact, to echo Dan Clark, we need to be proactive in designing our role through a digital lens. As the guru Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

So, what next?

The Q&A revealed the common denominator that connected all the talks: people. It has to start there. Technology must be in the service of supporting that business case and the room put this down to one thing: experience. Our research has shown us that until now the use of technology has been focused on managing buildings better, not creating better experiences.

That is where data comes in. If we know ‘why’ we’re collecting it, we can use it to make better, more informed decisions. That can help us design better experiences and if we can make better evidence-based decisions we have the power to win the required investment because we’ll have proven the impact.

It requires a shift in focus and measurement. If experience is king, then all data, including building data, must be analysed in that context; this could be the key to positioning the profession in a rightful position of influence. Marketing has made the transition helped by data, as expert Daniel Rowles has outlined to us.

It gives our project with Microsoft plenty of food for thought (and we didn’t even cover tricky subjects like ethics). As David Williams said, the opportunities are endless but there are barriers and hurdles; our project will look to understand them and provide the tools to overcome them.

If your organisation is interested in partnering with IWFM and Microsoft on their research project or learning more about this programme do get in touch with Kari Allen kari@b2bpartnerships.org