They say access isn't everything. But when you go back to work after COVID-19, all doors may open via a mobile app that will also track everywhere you've been and ping your boss every time you enter or exit the building. You may be asked to sport a wearable device like a smart ring to call the elevator hands-free, or to store an "immunity passport" if you've already had the virus.
Some companies will be content to overhaul office layouts to maximize distance between co-workers, relying on low-tech options like plexiglass cubicles and mandatory face masks.
But for those who do invest in pandemic-driven building tech, the changes could also include more aggressive automation, replacing the overnight cleaning crew with robots and adding questions about security and labor replacement to the more obvious privacy concerns that will come with the reimagined workplaces being pitched by opportunistic tech vendors.
The demand for touch-free solutions is "busier now than ever," said Denis Mars, CEO of Proxy, a digital identity startup working on smartphone-enabled building access and smart rings. "If anything, it feels like the world tilted on its axis to reinforce how important it is that we get these things right sooner rather than later."
Proxy is one of many companies in the $18 billion property tech industry, or "proptech," recalibrating offerings for clients seeking more physical control over offices, factories and warehouses in an uncertain world. These companies range from venture-backed access control providers such as Proxy, Openpath and Nexkey to large building automation and security incumbents including Honeywell, Siemens and Kastle Systems.
How will it all work? Depends on who you ask. But it's another potential shift for many tech campuses and high-end offices, where the trend in recent years was to install fingerprint scanners and iPads that doubled as receptionists. The design firm Gensler frames the coronavirus challenge as a transition from a "frictionless workplace" to a "touchless workplace," nixing shared electronics and other once-convenient systems that now seem laced with danger.
Though the commercial real estate market has been hit hard by lockdowns, prompting layoffs and missed rent payments, executives and investors in building tech are betting that anxiety about reopening facilities could spell financial opportunity in an otherwise bleak economy.
"You started to see in the last crisis a lot of fintech successes," said Aaron Block, co-founder and managing partner of New York real estate tech venture capital firm MetaProp, referring to the 2008 financial crash. "I think you're going to see a lot of property tech successes coming out of this. It's really a catalyst for innovation."
How many companies will shell out for permanent new building hardware and software systems will depend in large part on how long the public health emergency drags on. With a COVID-19 vaccine likely more than a year away, the question is how much employers are willing to spend on infrastructure for everything from onsite testing to new building access and occupancy tracking systems.
Though many providers promise easy integration with existing systems, part of the challenge with property tech is that installing major new hardware can require approval from a web of stakeholders: building owners, operators, tenants and sometimes even labor unions whose members work in a space.
"Access control is tricky," Block said. "It's a very fragmented market."
He expects to see more short-term emphasis on software to manage building occupancy, schedule time in shared spaces, assist with COVID-19 contact tracing and control HVAC systems that cycle fresh air through offices. In the coming months, the focus could shift to more pronounced physical changes, like the use of antimicrobial building materials, cleaning robots and advanced access control systems capable of quickly shutting down specified portions of a facility.
Los Angeles building access startup Openpath is among those hustling to help clients rethink facilities. It sees scenarios in which companies bring employees back in staggered shifts — perhaps one-quarter of the workforce at a time, for four to six hours per day. If all goes according to plan, employees will receive an encrypted mobile entry badge, tap an app on their phone and walk through a door that swings open automatically for their new shift.
"We're going to set their access permissions to that limited time frame," Segil said, "so if you show up at the wrong shift, you're not getting in."
Openpath piloted its response to COVID-19 with its own 75-person workforce, Segil said. There's touch-free building entry for a skeleton crew of essential hardware personnel working through shelter-in-place orders, and Segil has added new notifications and occupancy-tracking features for the employees who still need to visit the company's Culver City headquarters.
"I know when that person has showed up, when that person has left, and it's only one person at a time," Segil said. "You know I'm going to get pissed off if I see multiple employees sneaking in at the same time to work in the office and get out of the house."
Some companies are considering low-tech stopgaps to manage busy areas, such as putting down masking tape to mark available spaces in an elevator. But over time, such processes could be hardened and digitized.
"There is a need from an audit and compliance perspective to have technology come into play, but it takes a while to get the technology deployed," Segil said. "There's a combination of business process, which has to do with training people to act a certain way and creating a set of social norms, and then there's also the compliance and having technology to audit what's going on."
Any building technologies that track detailed employee movements or alter who has access to sensitive areas of offices or factories are fraught with questions about security, efficacy, functionality and privacy. Futurist and New America cyberwar expert P.W. Singer observed that in-office cleaning robots and other automated services rapidly rolled out during a crisis "open up a whole new kind of hacking where you could have more of a physical effect."
For Proxy, which launched four years ago in San Francisco, the potential security advantage of wearable devices was a key factor motivating Mars and his team to accelerate R&D related to socially distant offices. After announcing a $42 million series B funding round last month, the company acquired Motiv with the goal of using its smart rings to not only open doors and summon elevators but potentially monitor biometric data like body temperature or add precision to office access controls or contact tracing.
"We very much live in a world now where we need to match the human with the action," Mars said, which is easier to do if you're wearing a tracker at all times. "With the smart ring, we now have the ability to 100% limit your access to things."
As it stands, the company's customers ask employees to install an app on their phone, which functions as an all-in-one ID and Bluetooth office badge to allow access to certain doors, elevators, parking garages and other spaces. With a wearable like a smart ring, the company could encode medical markers such as whether workers have immunity or, eventually, whether they have been vaccinated.
"We're starting to think about if there is a need for providing certifications for individuals," Mars said. "How do we do that in a controlled kind of way?"
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But amid this rush to transform workplaces is the question of how many companies might opt to cut offices entirely, rather than retrofit them for social distance. At remote work startup Firstbase, which sells employers home-office furniture and equipment packages to offer their employees, the wait list more than doubled in March, to some 1,250 companies, CEO Chris Herd said.
"I think the genie's really out of the bottle here," Herd said of the shift to remote work. "Anecdotally, we're hearing that large companies are definitely going to persist."
While building tech companies like Proxy and Openpath bet that brick-and-mortar offices will endure, ramping back up will also require mobilizing contract electricians, security consultants, system integrators and others who have been hit hard during COVID-19 shutdowns.
"My message to all of them is hold tight," Segil said. "Because in the next couple of months, we're going to be busier than we've ever been."