CRE Midwest

Wired and ready to work: Build out your workplace for today's connected workforce

| Clay Edwards | Vice President and Partner, Skender Construction

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Wired and ready to work,ph2

Want a productive workplace? Design and build it with tech specs in mind. Tech specifications for a new office used to be an afterthought; today it’s an essential strategic question with real cost, timing and location implications. Here are the top ten questions to ask to ensure an appealing, effective, tech-enabled workspace.

1. Start with the basics: Can employees plug in when they need to?

Today’s longer-lasting laptop batteries mean longer spans of working away from desks, so for quick breakouts or meetings lasting two or three hours, direct access to power is less essential than it used to be. However, workstations should have easily accessible outlets at desk height, unlike the past when people had to crawl under desks, and access to USB ports as well as electrical outlets to charge phones and tablets.

2. What’s the right balance of Wi-Fi and cellular coverage versus cost?

High-speed Wi-Fi is crucial to a highly productive workforce. Wireless access points have become far less expensive in recent years, which means you shouldn’t hesitate to blanket your space in coverage. The same goes for DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) that support enhanced cellular service. Office workers increasingly use cell phones rather than relying solely on land lines. “Dead zones” where cellular coverage doesn’t reach may be a drain on productivity. Beefing up Wi-Fi also allows employees to switch to Wi-Fi calling in the office, an option which most cellular networks support, and enhancing Wi-Fi and cellular coverage is helpful for guests, too. Bottom line: the minimal cost savings from skimping on access points or data speed isn’t worth it.

3. Does the construction budget include AV and other high-tech touches?

AV technology is increasingly important as a way to promote collaboration and ensure distributed teams stay connected. Plus, we all have video streaming devices in our pockets, so employees have high expectations for workplace technology. IT costs overall have jumped from about 7 percent of the build-out budget 10 years ago to more than 25 percent today, and some companies are spending as much as $20 per square foot for AV systems and tech integration.

Companies should plan their space to incorporate not just the AV solutions they’re using today, but what they’re going to need in the coming years. A space planner who doesn’t consider both needs AND budget relating to communication technology, may be in for quite a surprise!

4. What white noise and other sound-dampening technologies need to be considered?

Office space with open ceilings, exposed concrete floors and a lack of cubicle walls have very few soft surfaces to absorb sound and prevent echo. In a busy environment of conference calls, employee meetings and casual conversations, echo raises the noise levels and disrupts the sound system on audio and video conference calls, making it hard for employees to focus on their work or conduct calls.

White noise systems can mask some noise, but some employees find the artificial noise itself to be a distraction. For open offices, acoustical sprays are increasingly popular for reducing the disruptive effects of echo on conference calls. The biggest downside from a build-out perspective is that all other site work must pause for a week or more while the acoustical spray is applied.

5. Can HVAC systems handle people and technology even as your company grows?

Open plans allow companies to use space more efficiently than ever—designating between 100 and 150 square feet per employee, compared to twice that much 20 years ago. At the same time, the amount of technology in the workplace has soared. The increased heat from equipment and people creates the need for additional cooling and ventilation. HVAC systems in many older buildings don’t have the capacity to support high density levels, so that should be a consideration when selecting a building, particularly if you have plans to add people or tech systems.

6. How will you use technology for wayfinding and room scheduling?

Many firms integrate technology into signage at elevator lobbies or public spaces. In a traditional office layout, a company might want digital directories to help find a person’s workstation or a conference room. But in today’s mobile office where workers often don’t have assigned locations, companies use phone apps that allow employees to find each other in the office. That kind of cloud-based system doesn’t have a major impact on the build-out process, but it’s another reason to make sure your space has full Wi-Fi and cellular coverage.

Scheduling systems that help manage the use of collaborative spaces and conference rooms are becoming more tech integrated, too. Systems have to accommodate impromptu meetings as well as scheduled ones, and teams don’t want to waste productive time looking for a place to meet.

7. How can you anticipate future workplace tech innovations, such as virtual or augmented reality?

Try to make room in the budget to wire your space for the fastest possible network speed. You may not need it today, but the processing demands of the future are unknown. Be prepared for new uses for augmented reality systems in the workplace and the potential for Power over Ethernet, or PoE, as a way to provide electricity for monitors and other electronic devices. If and when these trends take hold, spaces will have to be rewired for higher loads. So installing more advanced wiring and equipment today carries a premium cost, but could amount to future savings if you adapt to emerging technologies.

8. Does your space take advantage of the Internet of Things, or “smart” technology for better data collection and analysis of building systems?

Since spaces are typically managed by the building landlord, data tracking and analysis can be limited in the interiors environment. However, it can come into play with elements such as lighting and heating and cooling systems. Lighting controls systems were IoT before it was mainstream. Early lighting control systems utilized addressable ballasts to make every light fixture have the ability to be controlled by individual users while being centrally connected. This was initially very expensive, but as the technology continues to advance, it may become more of the norm.

9. What role can technology play in reducing resource consumption and waste?

Sustainability is important to most organizations as a way to reduce resource costs, appeal to employees and maximize wellness and productivity. These issues affect every aspect of the build-out process from air handling systems to the materials in furnishings, and technology is no exception. For example, energy-efficient electronics and automated lighting systems help reduce electrical usage, and high-quality video conferencing can reduce the need for travel.

10. Will it help your employee recruitment efforts to have a “wow” technological feature in the space?

Some companies want to brand their space with technology features, but most of our clients are cost-conscious. They want to focus on the high-priority items that will ensure a productive workforce today and throughout the life of the space. Having the ability to adapt to the rapidly changing workplace will be attractive to the best talent. That includes ultra-fast Wi-Fi and integrated technology in collaboration rooms and conference rooms. A recent study of office tenants found that 80 percent experience connectivity issues, and about three-quarters said it affects their profitability. So if you can provide an environment where your employees won’t have those issues, that’s the biggest “wow” feature you need.