Now that companies are adapting to hybrid schedule work schedules, employers are trying to determine how to transform their spaces into high-tech, wellness-centric locations that accommodate, entice, and retain employees. While flexible workspaces, collaborative areas, and even private meeting rooms are all essential to addressing the needs of the part-time in-office worker, there is one element that serves as the backbone of a successful hybrid environment and that is technology. The importance of technology in crafting a connected office is not new, but how technology is incorporated into the workplace is evolving. Cisco Systems is promoting a new approach to smart building technology to serve the age of hybrid work and whatever comes next.
From a real estate perspective, one of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic is that the office building needs to be able to change at a moment’s notice, and the only way to execute change quickly is through technology. It’s a hybrid-work world now and technology has become foundational. “Workplaces must become compelling, sustainable, people-centered destinations that provide workers with a sense of choice in their environment. People want to spend their time in environments that maximize the way they live, work, play, and collaborate, and tech can make or break these experiences,” said Tom Krizmanic, principal & studio director with architecture firm Gensler, a frequent Cisco partner.
Everyone is accustomed to running their lives via a smartphone, but that ease of operation has tended to stop at the office door until now. With technology taking center stage in the workplace, the experience for employees becomes more seamless, and employers have the data required to alter the office environment when circumstances dictate. “The process we now use is to understand the user experience, understand the data we need to capture, and then pick the technology.” said Bob Cicero, leader of Americas Smart Building at Cisco. “Our view is that we need to get the right built environment components in there and the right hardware pieces of the technology. When we have those right components together, the building is going to continue to adapt and change via software. So we’re now thinking of the building as being programmable essentially.” The technological foundation essentially enables a building to be updated with the addition of layers of software, much like the updating of a smartphone, allowing for a continuous loop of optimization and evolution of the workspace.
The ability to program the workspace facilitates adaptability to unforeseen changes in workplace needs. In the hybrid era, a programmable workplace means all relevant parties can be in the same room virtually, whether it’s the worker in the building, the remote employee at home, or the traveling executive in another country. Everyone is together virtually or literally when they need to be, and when they don’t, the data tells you so and the different office spaces become different things for different people and their different needs. By prioritizing the needs of the hybrid workforce for, say, conference room meetings, Cisco is then able to focus on the design that shapes the activity in the room. Table shape and orientation matter, as do seating positioning and the overall layout of the space in terms of density, ambiance, and acoustics.
The Cisco smart technology process essentially utilizes tech to not only understand office user needs but also to provide the coveted user experience. The process relies on IoT data to aggregate continuous insights from the physical space, which allows for a real-time assessment and alteration of any number of office conditions ranging from temperature to air quality to room usage and even seating preferences.
Technology-first is a no-brainer when constructing an office building from the ground up, but the concept becomes something else altogether when considering existing structures, which comprise the bulk of the office market. Approximately 80 percent of the anticipated building stock for 2050 (the year the world hopes to reach net zero) already exists, and most of these structures were built in the traditional method, with layouts being designed first, followed by furniture, and then technology requirements. Alas, when the pandemic hit, Zoom rooms and the like became an add-on, as most office developments didn’t have the technological infrastructure in place to simultaneously accommodate in-office and remote needs at the drop of a hat. So, Cisco has flipped the process by defining and integrating the requisite technology as the first step for clients embarking on the journey of determining how to transform their offices into a workplace that works in a hybrid world. Cisco provides both products and services to clients, whether working with the customer directly or sitting down at the design table with architects.
One of the best ways to sell a new model like Cisco’s technology-first concept is to implement it in your own surroundings. That is precisely what Cisco has done with its offices in New York and Atlanta. Cisco’s New York office features 44,000 square feet of useable space on a single floor at PENN 1, a 2.5 million-square-foot office skyscraper that, while recently modernized, was originally developed in 1972 when technology was most certainly an afterthought. Utilizing its smart building technology approach and working with Gensler, Cisco was able to retrofit its space to address the high-tech needs of its hybrid staff. With a new focus on 70 to 90 percent “we space,” or collaboration areas, and 10 to 30 percent “me space,” or private workstations, the company transformed its workplace to provide 92 collaboration spaces featuring virtual conference technology that assumes there’s always someone working remotely in the room.
How did Cisco transform a tech dinosaur into a state-of-the-art workspace? The company relied on numerous technologies, including its network switching, a flexible platform providing the bandwidth, speed, and scale that is necessary for an effective hybrid environment. The PENN 1 retrofit also entailed the use of 90-watt Power over Ethernet (POE) technology, Webex collaboration tools, specially-angled cameras, sensors, and angled tables designed to give in-office and remote workers a “face” in the meeting for an equitable experience. “Sharing information, making decisions, and brainstorming each has a specific set of technology requirements, and after using data to define those requirements, we were able to focus on the details that support the activity,” Cicero said. Those supportive details include technology to support hybrid interaction on all levels, functional spaces, and even a desirable ambiance. A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute supports the viability of Cisco’s process, noting that buildings can be designed to include technology that promotes flexibility, such as sensors to track patterns of usage, which can inform an employer’s approach to hybrid work and help offices to adapt to shifts in preferences that are impossible to predict now.
Cisco is seeing the office-using community respond to its new approach to hybridizing the workplace, with the company having walked hundreds of customers through its New York City office/showcase. It’s currently involved in numerous projects where clients have asked the company to come to the table with its tech knowledge and be a part of the office transformation process as they attempt to adapt their workspace to the new hybrid world. The tech-centric office is not a trend, it’s the future of the workplace because the workplace will continue to evolve in ways we can’t yet conceive. However, just as many in the real estate industry were reluctant 20 years ago to make the upfront investments required for instituting sustainable measures that would offer environmental and financial benefits in the long term, some occupiers are dissuaded by the costs that come with incorporating new technologies to create a well-operating hybrid workplace.
Expenses aside, the workplace has changed, and occupants don’t have the luxury of contemplating whether they need to rethink their office design, they are in a position where they must determine how they’re going to make the office design changes. “The digitized real estate portfolio as a way to ideally manage the workspace platform for people, measure its performance for quality, and quantify its performance for sustainability will be the way things are done in the future,” Krizmanic said. “The upfront costs will eventually pay dividends in employee happiness, ultimately leading to productivity.” Additionally, the initial investment in the digitization of real estate and the insight it provides on energy usage will inform changes that will ultimately translate into energy savings.
Any change to a property is going to require some level of investment, and despite some property owners’ and occupiers’ reservations about upfront costs, the office sector is going to evolve to accommodate the hybrid era. Cisco believes that there is a fundamental shift afoot in the office sector beyond the tech-first concept. Given the widespread access to thousands of data points at properties, the company sees the current climate as a time to digitize real estate. “With the elements of all the built environment components that we’re pulling together now, we have this opportunity to digitize what really hasn’t been digitized yet,” Cicero explained. “When you think about our lives right now, they’re all digital but yet the built environment was not digitized.”
The pandemic simply expedited the proliferation of the remote and hybrid work schedule, and now the real estate sector must come to the realization that the hybrid schedule is permanent, and the workplace has to change to accommodate it. While employers are not legally obligated to provide a hybrid schedule, much of the workforce is practically demanding it, and if companies want to attract and retain talent, it will behoove them to not only offer the hybrid option but also to make employees’ time in-office a worthwhile experience. Technology backed by data helps determine what works for employees when they’re at the workplace or working remotely, and technology allows employers to take that information and create the optimum workplace in the post-pandemic era. There’s no going back to the Monday-through-Friday as the norm, so more technology-centric retrofits in the office sector are unavoidable. Cisco is selling its smart building technology to assist in the transition required to accommodate today’s workforce and pave the way for easy adaptability to tomorrow’s workplace needs.