The first Smart Buildings Magazine round table was hosted under the shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral at the CBRE offices and was focused on state of the smart office.

From left to right
Rebecca Pearce, CBRE; Richard Holberton CBRE; John Baekelmans, Cisco; Trevor Miles, IBM.

With surveys showing that desk space in central London can cost £14,500 per annum, but desk utilisation rarely above 55 per cent and that 70% of British office workers feel more productive working away from the office and 90 per cent say flexible working doesn't impact their ability to collaborate with colleagues, the panel was asked whether technology could solve this problem and make work better for both the individual and employer.

On the panel were:

  • Trevor Miles, IBM UK smarter buildings, real estate and facilities consulting lead
  • John Baekelmans, CTO, vertical solutions, Cisco
  • Stu Higgins, smart and connected communities lead, Cisco UK and Ireland
  • Julian Chatwin, director enterprise software EMEA. Current by GE
  • David Whiteley, operations director, NG Bailey
  • Matt Salter, sales director, Redstone
  • Rebecca Pearce, EMEA head of sustainability, CBRE
  • Richard Holberton, EMEA research team, CBRE
  • Ivan Benitez, energy and sustainability team, CBRE
  • Joe Murray, sales director, Essensys

Richard Holberton from CBRE kicked off the debate and revealed that the company has done research that indicates that workers want flexible working arrangements, and this does not just mean the time of day that they work, it also means that workers want the flexibility to work in different locations, plus be able to work in different parts of the office. This is a strong driver for productivity, but this may not be recognised by the c-suite. He went on say that the technology to support this does exist. Matt Salter of Redstone, said that occupancy user software means that companies are looking to get the most from their facilities. As an example one of their clients wants to achieve 12 to 13 users per 10 desk spaces, but they need software to do this, but what they really wanted was a way to find other colleagues on a GUI and the company has been able to do this.

Stu Higgins from Cisco, backed up the thought that office users needed to be able to book space in advance, but also said that integration is necessary with transport to make sure the user knows what the best thing is for them to do that day. His colleague, John Beakelmans, said that the tools were necessary to be able to work from home, and if you haven't got the same tools that are available in the office you won't be able to work productively. So the question then became, do we have the tools to work effectively outside of an office environment?

The answer appears to be yes, however as John stated the real issue is that of work culture and whether companies are willing to change their culture and trust their employees to work effectively from home. John stated that companies need to be results driven, and not just look at filling desk space. He said that Cisco is a company that is only worried about results and not how many times it sees your face.

Julian Chatwin (Current by GE) then asked the question as to whether technology can solve this problem, and it was then thrown back as 'what do you want to achieve?' Richard answered this by saying that the technology is not the inhibitor, it is there, it is the cultural challenge that needs to be addressed. Richard added that what executives wanted was better data to analyse workplace activity.

Stu Higgins also added that companies need to help workers who work from home and make sure they are supported and trained to work effectively. Rebecca Pearce (CBRE) added that we need to create an environment with different types of work settings where different types of work can be achieved, whether it be collaborative or more personal. She added that whilst this could save energy and rent for example, it can also empower people in the workplace, and the technology has to be able to solve these problems.

Joe Murray from Essensys than stated that technology has other benefits. For example, if you know where your workforce is, you can redesign the workspace to make it more effective, which his company has done. Trevor Miles (IBM) stated that if you do empower the workforce, IBM has seen an increase in productivity and people do actually work longer as people can work in different places because of technology. However, Trevor also stated that whist technology is an enabler this must be supported by strong HR policies and processes.

John then added that in his case if he is coming to the office it has to be for a reason. An employer then needs to give workers activity based workspaces, so workers need the choice of what they need. Companies need to use their space better. David Whiteley said that NG Bailey had found the same in some of the installations that it had been involved with.

Ivan from CBRE stated that if you are an employee who had experienced a smart office and smart working, you will never go back, so this is a way of attracting talent and keeping hold of it, which is one of the biggest business costs. The conclusion was that a smart workplace is great for retaining staff and attracting staff.

John Baekelmans then said that automating processes for workers in buildings is what we really need to do, and in that regard we do not have smart buildings as yet.

Joe added that there is still the basic human need to be social so co-working in the workplace is vital and is another technology challenge. He stated that he was working on projects where the building can now react to the workers habits and this is extremely empowering for the companies involved, especially in a multi-tenanted office.

From left to right
Matt Salter, Redstone; Julian Chatwin, current by GE; Ivan Benitez, CBRE;
David Whiteley, NG Bailey; Joe Murray, essensys

The debate then turned to security and Stu highlighted the fact that workers need to be aware of their surroundings when working and potentially sharing sensitive information and that some workers, especially in the public sector (which employs over 5 million people) need to have protocols in place that prevent them from sharing information. Rebecca also highlighted the differences in legislation in other countries that prevent working outside the office environment. Trevor also made the point that many people do not have a suitable place to work outside of the office, and employers also need to take that into account. Research from IBM showed that millenials actually still want to work in offices!

Rebecca then raised the point that BMS systems need to be secure as we don't want people taking over buildings. Who is in control? John suggested we need open security standards and protocols so people can secure a system on an end to end basis. We need interoperability and open protocols between vendors. Matt then added that Redstone employs ethical hackers to make sure that the building is secure and use penetration testing. IBM does a similar thing with ethical hackers and found that there are up to 9 different loopholes that people fall down on, but it is possible to solve security problems.

There is a thought that we have smart workplaces, but not smart buildings. However, there still needs to be a cultural change in UK working practice in order to enable technology to effect this change. The technology is clearly here but the barriers to change need to be broken down. Security is still clearly a major issue and vendors need to be open to working together in order for their clients to be confident that their workers can be productive and effective. As one of the panel stated, we need FM, IT and HR to work together in order to make the correct decision for a company. Maybe we are still a long way off!

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