By Meghan Hall
Since COVID-19 has hit, there have been a lot of debates as to what the office will look like as workers begin to return. While much of that conversation has been centered around proper physical distancing, layouts and efforts to disinfect high-touch surfaces, the role of technology in corporate offices post-COVID-19 is equally as important. Tech innovation and infiltration has reached new levels of rapidity in recent weeks, as companies of all shapes and sizes have learned how to operate at a distance. Once companies begin returning on a more permanent basis, technology’s presence in both day-to-day operations as well as building infrastructure will be more paramount than ever, according to those who work at HGA, a national multidisciplinary design firm.
Before COVID-19, companies would often carefully investigate new technologies and take at least a couple of months to test them and roll them out to their staff. However, work from home and a need to collaborate despite distance has rapidly accelerated the pace at which new tech has been implemented—often because it is now absolutely necessary to keep some businesses running.
“We’re rolling out new technology even quicker…prior to COVID-19, you spent a lot of time vetting that technology and understanding the impact that it had,” explained Systems Integration Specialist at HGA, Nikolas Janik. “Now it’s almost a little bit opposite. It is that feeling of getting it out as quick as you can…Tech right now is what everyone is leveraging to get through this pandemic.”
“There is not one meeting that you’re part of where you’re not using technology, whether it is a collaboration tool or video tool,” added Janik.
HGA has seen rapid and widespread adoption of new technologies across all industries, and even those who had been remiss to fully enter the technological era are now doing so.
“…Before there was some technology that people were forced to use, and some people were early adopters who wanted to try everything,” said Remington Barrett, another systems integration specialist at HGA. “…I think one of the things I’ve noticed is that those people who had been more resistant to using technology, have been amazing at adapting and realizing they have capabilities they didn’t know they have.”
As a result, technology will continue to shape workflows both in and out of the office; HGA noted that in the AEC industry, they’re bringing tech partners and systems operators into the planning conversation much earlier, to make sure smart building systems and other new, innovative technologies work together.
“There should be a benefit when we’re able to look more holistically, and clients should get a better product out of that,” said Brad Kult, HGA’s director of technology services. “If you are bringing in technology as an afterthought, it isn’t necessarily going to be as coordinated and integrated as when we’re all at the table together as part of the planning.”
According to those at HGA, there are a number of wide-ranging technologies that are likely to establish a permanent foothold in the office sector. Chief among those will be technologies that work to minimize the use of high-touch surfaces. If COVID-19 has instilled anything in employees as they return to work, it is to try to refrain from touching common surfaces.
“In this new environment, we’re seeing the desire to see more technology in more places,” said Melissa Pesci, principal and project manager HGA’s San Francisco office.
Those technologies include everything from touchless entry, handwave doors, and ways to manage HVAC, lighting and conference room reservations from your own device. Voice controlled systems and wireless Technologies that measure space usage will also become of critical importance as employees and companies work to reinvent traffic flows and common areas to avoid crowds.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Kult.
While many of these systems can be operated using “touchless” measures, Pesci also emphasized that this could be the era when the personal smartphone becomes more integrated with office operations and systems.
“The elevation of the personal device has been something we have talked about for a long time,” stated Pesci. “There has been a lot of resistance around it because it isn’t part of the formal company infrastructure, or it has private data on it, but I think there is so much power in a personal device that I think being able to extend that to the workplace is exciting.”
Technologies that continue to foster communication between teams who are in the office, and those who will continue to work from home will also be paramount. Speaking from personal experience, those at HGA say that working from home has made them more productive due to less “drive by” visits and distractions during the day. On the flip side, Zoom fatigue has also become a common outcome of heavy tech usage.
“I think it raises the question of how we stay interactive in these engagements. By the end of the day you just are super exhausted,” said Janik. “How do we make sure everyone is bringing something to the table? How do we keep people engaged in a virtual manner?”
Those questions, and many others, still remain to be answered, but technological integration is here to stay. Moving ahead, HGA also emphasized that it is incumbent upon companies to ensure that all of their employees—both remote and in-office—are supported by upcoming technology.
“One of the fundamentals that is really valuable to HGA is equity, and making sure that the experience of those in the office is going to be shared by those outside of the office as well,” said Kult. “I think that as we see more of this hybrid—people working from home, people working from the office—I think we’ll need to be giving more attention as to what that looks like and how companies are supporting their workers, and that everybody has the same advantages.”