Protocol | Workplace

Hot-desking and office analytics: The future of work according to Envoy's CEO

Plus, why the future of work is a lot like middle school.

iPads running Envoy software at the front desk of an office.

Envoy is best known for its visitor-management tools, but it's becoming a much bigger part of office life.

Photo: Envoy

A remote, digital-first future of work would appear to be extremely bad news for a company like Envoy. CEO Larry Gadea and his team have spent a number of years building tools for physical offices, after all, including the visitor-check-in system it's best known for. (If you've ever been in a startup office, you know the one: It's the iPad in the lobby that makes you sign an NDA and then take a picture at that horrible under-chin angle.)

But Gadea said that while the pandemic created some tough times for Envoy — including forcing Gadea to lay off a big chunk of his employees — it has also helped accelerate the company toward some of its bigger, more ambitious plans. Gadea thinks the industry is headed for a rethinking of what an "office" actually does, with more intelligent tools to make sure every employee has the experience they need when they come in. And in a world where five days a week, 9-5 is no longer the normal setup, those tools seem to Gadea to matter more than ever.

Gadea joined the Source Code podcast to talk about how Envoy has changed over the last 18 months, how he sees physical spaces becoming more intelligent and collaborative, and why there are some serious parallels between the office of your future and the school halls of your past.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Over the years, you've talked about Envoy mostly as a thing for office visitors. And I think most people have interacted with Envoy as "the thing that takes ugly pictures of me when I check in to startup offices." But I get the sense that you've always had a much bigger idea about the future of the office. So give me the biggest version of the pitch.

I would say the biggest version of the pitch is that the future of work, and the future of the workplace, is where there's not one workplace. There isn't your company's place that you go to. You can work from anywhere, be it your home, be it your office, a satellite office of your company or a co-working space. The whole world's resources and workplaces are being allocated based on: You need a desk, you need a meeting room, you need to accept some people that come in, you need to be able to open the doors in these buildings. You now have this world where any company can be sharing its desks, its meeting rooms, its open event spaces.

And now you have this world with Envoy, which now has over 10,000 companies using our products and contributing their resources to this overall platform. Why even kind of go into your own company's offices? Why not go into any office that's available? That's what's really exciting.

There's a lot of wasted space out there. Why would you hold up an entire desk full time, if somebody is only going to be in one or two days a week? Open up that desk for anyone, and especially these days, maybe make some revenue on it if you're a company that has way too much space. On the receiving side, hey, you can't find a meeting room on your floor? Well great, go down four floors, there's a co-working space available there, we've already reserved one of the meeting rooms for you. And a desk. And also there's an open area where you can have an event later today. That's the future we see, where it's much more efficient, but it's also way more convenient and accessible for people.

Are you just backing your way into being WeWork? It sounds like you're one set of real estate leases away from just being WeWork.

I admire WeWork greatly. I think that they had really great ambitions. I think that they built out a lot, they had really great vision, especially on the product and engineering side. And they realized, before most people, just how important community is. And I think that WeWork just got stuck in too many really expensive old-school leases and contracts, and they just looked too much like an old dinosaur.

And I think that, like, these leases are complicated. Let's let the companies that are really good with them focus on that. And we will provide all the software, to automate all of this, to make it all easy for everyone to make a global "one platform one workplace," where everybody has access to it. That's the more exciting part of the whole thing. That's where the real innovation can happen. And we'd love to one day hopefully even partner with somebody like WeWork, where they operate the spaces and we'll be happy to provide all their software. Them and anybody else that's excited about this transformation.

Fair enough. It certainly turns out that the future is proving WeWork right in a lot of ways.

I kind of wish Adam [Neumann] was still in charge when the pandemic started. I'm really curious what would have happened!

It would've been super interesting. And it does seem like we've accelerated toward that big thing you're talking about, where everybody's office is everybody's office. That's an idea that I think even a couple of years ago would have seemed crazy to a lot more people than it does now. But how far along do you think we are on the road to the openness you're talking about?

I think you're right that a lot of people before the pandemic were not very sold. Most people didn't even have Microsoft Teams or Zoom or Google Meet. They literally were going to a meeting room, and this meeting room would have a table and chairs and that is it. You wouldn't have a giant monitor, you wouldn't have a projector, you wouldn't have anything.

Most people didn't even have Microsoft Teams or Zoom or Google Meet. They literally were going to a meeting room, and this meeting room would have a table and chairs and that is it.

[The pandemic] forced the whole world to realize, hey, technology can help you. And you don't have to resist it, and it's worth the investment. It made it easy for people, if they had a hunch it would help them, to get into the future and try out the new technology.

I think it's very likely that companies will see that next step. Now that they've opened themselves up to, "Hey, we're sharing desks, which used to be permanent. We used to share meeting rooms, so that's totally normal." They're going to see more and more benefits, be it in cost reductions or in community building, and people knowing each other. And having everything accessible on a phone, where you can see other people around me, their interests, maybe the event that they're going to go to tonight.

That's when other companies will notice. And they're trying new technology. It's about kind of hinting in the right ways that there's even more in this new panacea of exciting workplace technology. Not everyone's going to get it right away, but it'll drip in like any new technology.

You've gone from being one feature of the lobby of an office to a core part of the office re-entry system for a lot of people. And that has, I'm guessing, forced you to make a lot of educated guesses about how the world of work is going to work for some period of time. So I'm curious how you think about it, as you play the day out. I walk into the office, and I'm in an Envoy-equipped office — what does that look like right now? How does that system operate for people?

So right now, we are still in a world where there is a pandemic. We're in like v2, v3, I don't even know what they're at now. There's a lot of complexities. Safety is still a big concern. So I think a lot of the discussions companies are having are, do we need a vaccine? Do we need no vaccine? Do we want face masks and distancing instead? What is the amount of people that really mind?

So if you're an employee, you're getting up and you're marking on your phone, "I'm going to be coming into the office today." At the same time, you also are seeing, the rest of my team is there too, and they're sitting in this area. So when you mark yourself that you're going in, it puts you near them. And then it tells you, "Hey, you're going to have these meetings, you are going to have them on a Zoom call" or whatever. It's going to automatically move into a meeting room, because it knows now that all of you are in the office together. And then once you get to the office, it's only going to let you badge into your own office if you've actually filled out the health survey.

So now you're in. OK, who else is in there? It's going to show you the list of people in there. Maybe you can have buddies or friends marked in there. You can organize lunch together. Maybe it's even asking you what you would like for lunch today. And again, you're pulling up the same app you did before to get into the door, answer the survey and see the teams. It's also asking what you'd like to eat today. And it's telling you you have locker 417 that you can put your stuff in, because you don't have a desk, you have a temporary desk.

You're pulling up the same app ... to get into the door, answer the survey and see the teams. It's also asking what you'd like to eat today.

In California we don't have snow, but in other places, they have snow, and you have jackets and boots that need to get put somewhere! Right now they have this communal thing, and one of your shoes goes missing or your jacket gets swapped for somebody else's. This is the stuff that goes inside of a locker.

This all sounds like being in middle school.

It's literally all middle school. But the point is that it's just a lot more thoughtful about your day. And your office is going to be working with you and solving your mundane problems. But also at the same time, you're getting to know each other and getting to know your team better. And it's going to optimize the fact that you are in the office today, because I don't think the future of the world is a five-day-a-week-in-the-office thing. But when you are in the office, your time will be maximized and your opportunity for community building and social experiences will be there. And that's really the purpose and focus of the future workplace.

Tell me about the privacy side of all that. Because it does feel like we're having two simultaneous debates as an industry right now. One is, how do we manage this stuff in a way that is more data-driven and more thoughtful? Then on the other side, it's really easy for all of that to tip into, like, keystroke-level surveillance. You're in a position of gathering and using a lot of that data, especially as you start to see across companies and sort of meld different workplaces together. What's your sense of the right balance there?

The way I see it is that we are not supported by advertising. We are supported by businesses paying us money for service. So the way we see our position is that we have a revenue model that is very effective, actually, at making revenue and sustaining so we can hire more people and build more technology. So just off the bat, I think that there's an inherent non-desire to do questionable things, when we have a very strong revenue source that's growing very quickly.

We're also in San Francisco, might I add. There's a lot of very privacy-hyperaware folks here, including those that work at our company. So I would imagine there would be uproar and literal pitchforks here if we tried anything even slightly sketchy, just given our employee base.

I think we can actually lead the way a little bit and say, hey, maybe you shouldn't have individual access to when was this person in? And when did they leave? And what did they do? But you can imagine our first features would be an aggregate view as to how many people work in the event space, how many people were having lunch today versus yesterday versus a week ago. At the end of the day, it's like the really useful things for companies that really move the needle is when they get insights from a lot of data points, not just the one offs.

I buy that in most cases, but I do think it's a slight cop-out in some cases. It's a slippery slope, right? You theoretically have data to say, how long was David sitting at his desk? How much time did he spend goofing around at the vending machines versus actually sitting at his desk doing work? And that's information some employers would very much like to know, and at some point, someone is going to ask you for that information. It just seems like you're gonna need pretty clear lines on what does and doesn't feel right.

So I think that if an employer really wanted to keep track of every single person, I'm sure they could somehow find a way where it's like, well, there was only one person here and only one person checked in. So therefore, it must be this person.

But think about it today. There are already logs of you whenever you use your badge to get into the building. They're already collecting this information. They already have cameras inside the offices pointing in. So I think if somebody really wanted to kind of dig up the data, I'm sure that there'll be some way that they can get it. But what I'm saying, it's not on our roadmap to make it really easy to single people out. Customers ask us for things all the time, and that doesn't mean that we can just implement it right away.

I personally don't see the need to be tracking people in some specific way where it could be used in a malicious way. If companies really need access to that data, they have other systems. And I just don't think we're going to be optimizing our interfaces or our products for this, because we believe in that data being the arbiter of truth. And that's way easier to get at and show the value, than picking out individual cases.

As you think about that aggregate data, do you find companies know what to do with it? I've talked to folks who say, "Oh, we can understand how well our conference rooms get used." And then it's like, well, what the hell do we do with that information? You could have people use less real estate —

That's literally it. But there's more. For example, if you're looking for a meeting room right now, you shouldn't have to walk around the entire office and visually see if there's rooms available, you should be able to pull up the app and see, this room was booked, but no one showed up after five minutes so now it's yours. Now the employee is seeing an experience benefit, since I can find a room way easier even when everything was booked. But then the business is seeing a huge benefit, in that now they're seeing more utilization, so they don't need as many meeting rooms, which oftentimes is one of the leading causes for people to create a new floor with more meeting rooms and desks.

It's a space utilization problem. And you can't get good insight unless you have multiple products all feeding into one centralized system: the data as to the usage of the tables at lunch, the event space, the meeting rooms, the desks, the visitor reception area, how many packages are coming in. When you centralize all the systems, that's when you really get unique insights. And all the data aggregated together, it hasn't been done like this before. Maybe some companies had an app for their air conditioner, but only the, like, facilities dude can actually use it. If everybody can now have access to it in some way, or it knows when people are in the office to start or stop the air conditioning, you just have so much more ability to save money and also be better stewards of your space by having this data and acting on it.

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