Employees returning to the office in the midst of a pandemic should arrive with a new set of questions: What health precautions have been put in place? How crowded is the cafeteria? What meeting rooms are available? How do visitors access the building?
To help them adapt, a growing number of office managers are using mobile apps that offer the answers workers are looking for.
Building apps are designed to connect office tenants to maintenance, security and logistics systems and community development programs. They started gaining traction in 2018 as a way to make offices more efficient and have taken off during the pandemic as employers try to entice workers back into the workplace by making work-related tasks safe and convenient.
“COVID has definitely accelerated development, accelerated use and expanded use cases,” said Meghan Rooney, senior vice president of operations for experience management at JLL, a global commercial real estate company.
Applications can be customized for each specific location and tenant and extended as needed. Employees can use the app to enter a building, book conference rooms and request maintenance. Safety information, for example in the event of a building emergency or natural disaster, can be disseminated quickly. Building managers can monitor the use of breakout rooms and other locations.
During the pandemic, apps can also help the office feel safer by communicating building-wide health information and reducing physical interactions. But the rise of such apps, which can track workers around a building, has also prompted warnings from privacy advocates.
Still, the idea that every office building should have its own app is becoming the industry standard, Rooney said. She added, “Every conversation with investors now includes, ‘Which app would you recommend?’
JLL increased its investment in HqO, a construction app platform, in a fundraising round last year. Cohesion, Rise Buildings, and HiLo are other companies creating building management apps.
In the Chicago Loop, 15 businesses in an office tower known as 77 West Wacker began using Cohesion’s TranswesternHub construction app in June. Rosalyn Griffin, office manager at Rothschild & Co., an investment bank with offices there, can use her phone for simple tasks like submitting repair orders or being notified of incoming visitors, giving her gives more freedom to leave his office.
One of her favorite features is calling the elevator from the app when she enters the building. “You turn the corner, and it’s there,” she said. “It’s super easy.”
The app also benefits other building workers: no one has to worry about forgetting or losing a key card, she said, and those who work late hours and weekends can control the office temperature and book conference rooms.
Health and safety features of office building applications have become a priority in the pandemic. Coronavirus protocols, contact tracing information and emergency alerts can be broadcast through an app.
“We don’t have to rely on every company to pass information on to their staff,” said Annie Panteli, operations manager at 22 Bishopsgate, a 62-storey office tower in London’s financial district that has opened. in 2020. Bishopsgate worked with Smart Spaces to create a custom app for the building.
Tenants are looking to increase “contactless” building operations, Panteli added. Building apps offer some, including the ability for guests to pre-register for a tour and receive a QR code to scan the entrance, rather than checking in at a security desk. “We still have staff in the lobby, but they act more like hosts,” she said.
The TranswesternHub system offers contactless automatic doors for the parking lot, building entrance, elevator, conference rooms and restrooms.
The app is “an important piece of technology that helps people feel safe coming back to the office,” said Myrna Coronado-Brookover, senior vice president of asset services at Transwestern, a commercial real estate company, which has helped oversee the introduction of the application. in the building.
Building apps also provide the ability to monitor the use of conference rooms, cafeterias, and parking lots with the goal of improving operations. This data collection is part of a broader move towards “proptech”, an approach to real estate that allows companies to track the number of people in different parts of a building, which can help save money. money on heating, cooling and lighting in unused areas.
But privacy advocates say they are concerned about the collection of workers’ personal data.
Companies have been monitoring employee phone and computer usage for years, but these apps “take employee monitoring to a new level,” said Lorrie Faith Cranor, professor of engineering and public policy at the University. ‘Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.
The apps can cause stress for employees who feel their movements at work are being monitored, she said, particularly if the system flags personal information, such as when employees who don’t work together spend long periods in each other’s desks or when someone uses the restroom. often.
Companies need to be transparent about what information they track, how they use it, who will have access to it and why, Cranor said. Privacy practices should differ depending on the types of data collected, she said, with the idea that the more personal the information, the more restricted access should be.
To help mitigate privacy concerns, companies using creative apps should anonymize data whenever possible, said Stevens Institute of Technology professor Paul Rohmeyer. Identifying individuals can be important, for example, when tracing contacts or investigating a crime on property, but the system default should not be to identify every employee all the time. , did he declare.
Tracking software in app building should also be limited for other reasons, Rohmeyer said. Corporate espionage hackers may be able to identify business processes or types of deals going on by tracing who is meeting, for example, or they may be tracking the routines of senior executives.
Companies also need to think about what data is stored and for how long, Rohmeyer said. Employee movement data can be kept for a week for coronavirus tracking, while anonymized cafeteria usage statistics can be loaded into a database.