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Covid Acted As A Pivot And Is Bringing New Tech Into The Office World

If all goes well, companies will return to the office en masse after the first of the year, but workers and tenants will most likely expect many changes, including environments seen as safe. More protection from unneeded contact or crowding may be key to keeping buildings occupied and new technology has a role to play.

Due to new tech tools, visitors and workers in new or updated Class-A offices can expect a different experience than in pre-Covid days, Level-1 Global Solutions CEO Thomas McElroy said last week during Bisnow’s Chicagoland Property Management & Tech Outlook in-person event. Touchless entry and touchless elevators will be more common, with office workers needing only a code on their cellphone.

Level-1 Global Solutions' Thomas McElroy, CRG's Geoffrey Kasselman, The X Co.’s Andrew Kerr, LaSalle Investment Management's Kelly Soljacich and Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn’s Larry Woodard.

“The building's visitors system will know who you are, where you’re from and where you're going,” he said. “You’ll be able to walk through security without touching anything and the elevator will know what floor you’re going to, and all those things are technology-based.”

That will require a shift in thinking about internet security.

“It’s just not today, your computer or the system in your office,” McElroy said. “You now need to be concerned about the building’s systems and their protection, the HVAC systems and their protection, because that’s all a part of what's going to be required to keep tenants in the building safe from adverse actors.”

The coronavirus crisis has already shifted the thinking of many office users, according to CRG Senior Vice President Geoffrey Kasselman.

“There was a reluctant pivot to technology across our industry, both locally and nationally, and since Covid, it’s become a willing pivot to technology,” he said. “It started with work-from-home.  We were all stuck, yet there was pressure on us to produce for our employers and clients.”

33 Realty's Mary Gibala, Becovic's Sal Becovic, Somerset Development's Ralph Zucker and Comcast's Theresa Kung.

The need to have high-tech tools available has only increased in 2021, he added. Much of that is due to the nation’s labor market, which simultaneously has many open jobs going unfilled and many workers quitting their jobs.

“There are a lot of people wanting to employ people and a lot of people wanting to be employed," Kasselman said. "And yet the matches aren’t being made, which is an interesting dynamic, so there is a pivot now to automation, in the factories, in the office space and the retail world.”

To bring people back, companies will need to make sure the workplace is just as desirable as being at home.

“You have to want to go there and you have to be comfortable while you’re there, and some of that can happen through technology, more automation, more direct control of lights and HVAC in your own space,” Kasselman said.

Companies also need to provide more outdoor space, among other non-tech solutions, if they want groups of employees eager to go to the office each day.

“Until you achieve a space with that dynamic, technology itself can’t bridge the entire gap,” Kasselman said.

Bell Works Chicagoland

According to X Co. partner Andrew Kerr, there has always been a lot of demand for high-tech products that make consumers’ lives easier, but building owners and property managers have historically been reluctant to adopt them due to cost or other concerns. That reluctance is fading away in the face of Covid worries, but Kerr said they should consider touchless technology, the need for less face-to-face interactions and other changes as opportunities, not just a set of additional costs.

“Covid served as a trigger point for the adoption of a lot of technology,” he said. “But what it’s brought to light is there are a lot of conveniences, not just for consumers and users, but also for property managers and landlords, in a way that they can more efficiently run their buildings based on certain hardware and software investments, and make more intelligent decisions.”

But even with all the energy now going into the adoption of technology, most of it, including touchless systems and self-guided tours, was invented several years ago.

Now is the time to ask what comes next, LaSalle Investment Management Senior Vice President Kelly Soljacich said.

“We have not seen a ton of additional innovation in the tech space in the past few years," she added.