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Tech Integration: Enabling the Office of the Future


Photo of abstract office hallway
Image: malija -
Last week I touched on the role that speech technology will likely play in the post-COVID-19 workplace, and discussed the potential for enterprises to push more office control functionality into applications that can be deployed within a company’s workforce portal.
NEC Corporation of America has been one of the leaders in this area; last year I described how its Smart Workspace application combines office systems like parking reservation with physical access via facial recognition, together with the team collaboration platform that workers use throughout the day for communications. A year ago, I admired this approach for its elegance and innovation; today, it looks almost prophetic.
The workspace application of the future should be one that lets employees control as much of their environment — office as well as virtual — from their own mobile device. Every system that runs the office should be mirrored within the company’s branded employee app, and the phone should essentially act as a remote control to physical elements: the room reservation system that previously worked via a touchscreen next to the door; conference room video controls (when such rooms are back in use); and as a keycard or badge for delegated or guest access to office areas.
Much of this technology exists, but is deployed in a piecemeal fashion. If an enterprise is trying to lay the groundwork for an office culture in the age of COVID-19, it’s critical that employees be able to control their environment from a device they’re comfortable using throughout the day. Further, it’s vital that the software by which they exercise this control be completely simple to use; otherwise, employees won’t use it.
That’s why NEC’s idea of packaging everything together — systems for office use as well as remote communications — makes so much sense. When I wrote about NEC’s system last year, I called it “Your Workspace in the Palm of Your Hand,” and that’s become not just a nice-to-have, but a necessity.
To understand why this is such a necessity, I recommend this post by Randy Howder of the design firm Gensler. Like many folks in the office-design world, Howder has a strong interest in innovations that keep as many offices open as possible in the future; the title of his post paraphrases the familiar Mark Twain line, insisting, “Reports of the Death of the Workplace Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.”
But what resonates about Howder’s argument is its emphasis on culture — both the particular enterprise’s culture, as well as the larger society’s. He notes that while 9/11 changed travel, it didn’t kill it. Similarly, he suggests, a cultural desire to work in offices will lead people back into physical workspaces post-COVID-19, though with altered circumstances, just like with airports.
This is where office/building systems and collaboration technology and office spaces come together. Pre-pandemic, such technology was often in the background, added in the final design phase or, worse, to finished space — at least at all but the most progressive companies that had begun looking at designing interactive, connected, and collaborative office spaces. In the new world, this won’t be an option. Technology is what will allow the space to be minimally functional for large groups.
In a sense, the office as a purely physical reality really is dead. Offices of the future — at least those at the leading edge — will need technology if they’re to exist at all.