ARTICLE
Smart Building Digital Strategy Leads to Frictionless Experience
By Todd Boucher, LEDG Founder & Principal

As people begin to return to facilities of all kinds, the frictionless experience propels occupants to give up the comforts of working and playing at home to embracing the new built environment. It is critical for building owners and facility leaders to understand both sides of the frictionless experience, organizational performance, and the occupant when creating a digital strategy for the built environment. The commitment to a frictionless, personalized experience teaches us all a vital lesson about occupants — safe, engaging occupant experiences will drive utilization and loyalty.

Frictionless reality

How does the industry define a frictionless experience? Frictionless means that something can be “achieved with or involving little difficulty” or considered effortless. It also equates to minimal touching of surfaces in today’s world, which now requires several disinfection acts.  The simple motion of holding on to a stair railing or sharing a pen outside of the home heightens “surface phobia.”

The frictionless experience was coming along well before COVID-19. Disney and Amazon understand what it takes to engage occupants. They didn’t get there one technology or interaction at a time. These organizations took the time to create a vision of the frictionless occupant experience before developing an implementation plan.

Let’s take a look at the day and life of a potential frictionless office worker.

HOME

Sarah wakes up feeling refreshed and ready for the day. Her virtual assistant (VA) has summarized her morning wellness report, including REM sleep, heart health, and temperature. “All systems go” for in-office work.  As Sarah gets ready for the commute, the VA  updates her schedule and recommendations. The VA informs Sarah that Richard and Karen will call into the team meeting since they work from home. The intelligent building management system (iBMS) assigns Sarah to the smaller conference room on the tenth floor by the coffee lounge. The VA recommends that Sarah take her vehicle to work since traffic will be light, and there will be plenty of electric vehicle (EV) charging spots available based on employees’ travel and work from home schedules.

COMMUTE

Full autonomous driving makes the commute go by quickly. As Sarah approaches the office, the car drops her off at the entrance and proceeds to the iBMS provided EV parking coordinates. As Sarah enters the building, the door opens automatically, and the turnstile gives the green light to proceed. Walking towards the elevator lobby, Sarah sees her name on the digital display.  It lets her know that elevator one is ready to take her to the tenth floor, where the team meeting is starting in 20 minutes. Elevator one opens the door as Sarah approaches. Once inside, Sarah notices that the tenth floor is already selected as well as the 15th floor. As soon as Bob enters, Sarah realizes he will be sharing the ride on his way to accounting.

WORK

When exiting the elevator, the building smartphone app alerts Sarah that the conference room will not be available for another 15 minutes while being disinfected from earlier meetings. With the extra 15 minutes, Sarah proceeds to the lounge to visit with others and grab a coffee.  The coffee machine recognizes Sarah’s presence and asks, “Are you having the usual today?” Sarah verbally confirms her order, and the coffee is made just how she likes it. Close by, Sarah views an interactive display that can access information on the company’s performance, lunch menu, building health, and more. The company recently installed additional solar panels and energy storage to improve its sustainability efforts, so Sarah asks to see the current building statistics.  The digital display shows a 10 percent overall improvement compared to last year and the amount of solar energy generated vs. energy consumed. After several minutes of “water cooler” talk, the building app alerts Sarah that the conference room is clean and ready. The digital display outside of the conference room shows “green” for the team meeting to proceed, and that one person is already in the room. As Sarah enters, the presentation and video conference connections are automatically being loaded and initiated.

The staff meeting goes well, and Sarah accesses the building app to request a place to work. There are several options, including private quiet rooms, communal areas, and outside tables. Based on the project Sarah is working on, she decides on a spot in the communal area. The app provides the best route to the work area showing a short three-minute walk. Just as Sarah approaches, the app sends an alert that the area has been closed for cleaning due to possible virus contamination from a person that recently visited the area. Sarah selects another available spot while hoping the app does not notify her that she encountered the infected person. The rest of the day goes smoothly, no need to quarantine. As the workday comes to an end, Sarah reflects on what the work environment was like in early 2020 and is grateful for the modern, safe, technology-advanced, frictionless environment she is experiencing now.

The frictionless experience is expected today. When a building owner delivers a frictionless experience for their occupants in the most standard of design, it builds trust between the owners and the occupants. Providing this type of digital experience for occupants, tenants, visitors, and customers will also improve the building’s reputation while increasing property value, maximizing return on investment, and garnering a competitive edge in the commercial real estate market.

1. Touchless access

Touchless access and controls are vital for a smart building frictionless experience. We’ve all experienced touchless access with grocery store automatic doors, faucets, soap, and towel dispensers. These solutions are the first step or baseline of the frictionless experience because the solution, a faucet or door, does not know or care who the occupant is. The device senses someone is there and generates the resulting action — a door opening or water flowing.  It gets a bit more personalized when managing the individual wanting access and control during a touchless experience.  Many access control devices require occupants to swipe a company ID card or get it close enough for the radio frequency chip to activate the door lock. From a personal example, I used to keep my company access badge in my wallet, so I had to swivel my backside up to the door sensor to unlock the door. This motion would have been so much easier if I was just a little bit taller. In one smooth movement, I could hit the access button to open the door as well. Many of my colleagues mastered the maneuver while carrying a laptop and a coffee cup. Outside observers were amazed at the stream of employees executing a ballet of swivels, turns, and gymnastics to get through the door. There must be a better way.

With the right touchless access control solution, managing access to entryways, elevators, and even coffee machines are achievable. The access control system can identify occupants, their permissions, and preferences. There are many ways technology can sense occupant presence, such as near-field communications (NFC), video surveillance, Bluetooth wireless, smartphone presence, and more. The iBMS is taking this awareness data and combining it with the room scheduling, elevator control, conference room, AV equipment, and even the parking lot systems providing a comprehensive frictionless experience.

2. Occupant Wellness

As the digital strategy forms, it is important to integrate occupant wellness information.  The latest smartwatches and rings can report REM sleep, heart health, temperature, ECG, and more.  How nice would it be if the watch could provide a healthy passport to enter buildings without having to wait in line for a temperature check or go through a wellness interview regarding your recent history? Such requirements help to ensure there is a good chance the other people are healthy as well. We all know this is not 100 percent guaranteed, but it’s better than just hoping for the best and the ole “trust me, I’m good” response.

Occupancy awareness solutions are a great way to count and track people throughout the building. This tracking technology is typically placed around the workspace in the ceilings and above doors. Using directional sensors, people counting and movement throughout the building and office area is possible. Technology-based occupancy tracking will enable analytics of behavioral patterns, as well as space utilization enabling smart usage services like disinfecting a conference room or elevator after a certain number of people, have used it. Also, occupancy counting makes sure the building, office, elevator, or conference room is not exceeding the local requirement for occupancy limits. It is a lot more accurate than the welcome desk manually counting people as they come and go.

While the maximum occupancy of a building, room, or elevator is a regional mandate, occupancy tracking policies are set by businesses, especially regarding data anonymity. The identity of people in occupancy tracking solutions can track anonymously or directly. Facial recognition, assigned tags and badges, cell phones, and other active solutions support tracking its occupants’ personally identifiable information (PII). Of course, businesses can operate active tracking with anonymity if that is their policy. Passive monitoring by merely sensing the presence of people is inherently anonymous.

The debate over PII is complicated and very personal. However, if you want to perform social distancing awareness and contact tracing, PII is needed. For example, if someone’s test results show that they are COVID-19 positive, it is essential to know who they are and who they have encountered so appropriate quarantining can take place. PII can be thoughtfully managed such that only human resources (HR) have protected information. I have heard powerful opinions on both sides. I heard one business owner say that they have a name for employees that don’t opt into their PII agreement … “unemployed”. ‘I’ve also heard other businesses flat out refuse to capture any PII regarding occupant tracking due to corporate policy for employee privacy. This is a very personal issue that will not resolve anytime soon and is up to the employee to ensure they are working in an environment that suits their values.

3. Growing intelligence

The ability to bring all the information and data together is what enables this frictionless world. The digital experience is possible thanks to the touchless access and control, the availability of wellness information, occupant preferences, building management systems, and other external solutions, all feeding data to the building data analytics engine. This engine combines, compares, and disseminates intelligent information that provides occupants with a personalized experience. Providing occupants the ability to provide feedback on their experience is crucial for continuous improvement and instills trust and satisfaction that their opinions and experiences are essential. Whether it’s an office, hospital, or retailer, measurable outcomes may be different but the planning, design, implementation, and reporting look very similar.

Creating a digital strategy will better the frictionless experience and establish a framework for data privacy and security while providing the flexibility to respond to rapidly evolving technology in the smart building environment. Today we are accomplishing what many could not imagine a few years ago. With the advancement of technology and machine learning, we are also on our way to autonomous buildings using artificial intelligence. This digital transformation will move us from real-time feedback to predictive actions that provide the optimal occupant experience and efficient building operations. A commitment to a frictionless environment, at any personalization level, will drive greater facility utilization and occupant satisfaction for the foreseeable future.

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