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Time to trust technology

30 September 2011

Incorporating the latest technology can improve efficiency and productivity and yet thoughts of taking steps down the technological road fill some with fear. Matt Wailling argues that the trick is to come up with a whole company strategy

MAN’S CEASELESS QUEST TO INVENT the next best, biggest, smallest, most versatile, fastest gadget has two primary goals at its heart: to make life easier and to claw back a little time for more important things – ideally, saving a little money on the way.
Technology seems to have spawned endless entrepreneurial spirits keen to work incredibly hard to help other people not have to work so hard. And by and large it’s worked; from the spinning jenny to telepresence robots, hundreds of years of invention have saved us countless thousands of hours’ hard graft. A well thought out technology strategy, defined to fit both your company and your workspace, can boost productivity, save countless man-hours, increase profits, aid your environmental efficiency agenda and even improve working relationships.
Yet in offices up and down the country you can witness frustration as the expensive hardware or software designed to make the job easier appears intent on messing with people’s timetables. When technology seems out to get you, it’s down to one, two or all three of the following reasons: poor user training, poorly selected technology, or poorly applied technology.
Users shouldn’t be too harsh on their FM or IT manager though – it’s not easy choosing a set of complementary technologies, especially when that’s not the sole function of your job. Perhaps someone should invent something that knows about all the options and can make those right choices… Until that time, an external, and independent, technology consultant is the nearest thing available.
The agony of choice and the importance of context
Most companies don’t have an integrated ICT and business strategy. Many businesses make do with occasional upgrades carried out only when the oldest computers in the company force a wholesale move to a newer, but seldom the latest, operating system. As for moving to a different operating system, surely that’s too onerous and disruptive? Cutting edge technology for others is installing a flat-screen TV in reception.
The barriers seem to be: not considering IT infrastructure and solutions early enough in the process of fit-out or refurbishment; fear of the unknown; insufficient budget; and/or lack of knowledge about how the right combination of technologies can improve productivity and efficiency in the workplace, create operational efficiencies, deliver space savings and aid employee engagement and retention.
In our experience, implementing the right suite of technologies will always deliver long term benefits. But to see results that can be defined and measured first requires what we call technology visioning – being fully au fait with the very latest and forthcoming developments and exploring how they can be applied, as part of a bespoke solution that considers every facet of the business.
There are a myriad of technologies available and here are just some we listed in our top 10 for 2011, based on the year’s big technology events (ISE, Cebit and CES):
1. Fuel Cells: A power source for mobile devices that generates electrical current from chemical reactions between ingredients such as hydrogen and oxygen.
2. 3D Screens: From 3D notebooks to a Sony screen that doesn’t require 3D glasses.
3. Tablet PC: There are now over 100 tablet computers available; Ruvo claims to produce the smallest fully functioning PC in the world, with an 11.6" multi-touch screen.
4. Directional and Hidden Audio: Directional audio can be sent to a specific person or area, allowing other areas to remain quiet. Flat panel speakers can be built into walls and plastered, painted or even wallpapered over.
5. Mixed Reality – Holographic Display: Unique 3D displays delivering holographic-like, free-floating video images.
6. Mobile phones replacing tablets: Devices like the Motorola ATRIX 4G, A dual-core processor-powered smartphone which can be docked into a large display and keyboard when you reach the office.
7. Curved Video Displays: A thin, lightweight and low-power display that can cover a curved surface of down to 40 inches diameter and weighs 6 stone/40 kg.
8. Secure mobile data storage: The RiTech Signature USB offers hardware encryption, dual fingerprint recognition and unique self-destruct tamper protection.
9. NFC Mobile Phones and Tablets: Near Field Communication (NFC) lets consumers use their mobiles to make purchases and exchange data with other devices.
10. TelePresence Robot: video conferencing that simulates being in the same room as your fellow conference members.
Keeping up-to-date with everything is challenging enough when time is on your side and most IT and FM managers don’t have enough left after all their other responsibilities to take a step back, undertake the research and consider the bigger picture. Not to mention that most fit-outs and refurbishments are fast-track.
External advice can obviously help, but you need to be careful that the technology consultancy doesn’t have a vested interest in certain product lines.
Just as importantly, in-house facilities experts don’t necessarily have an in-depth knowledge of, or the power to influence, critical related factors such as workspace layout, furniture and intra- and inter-departmental working relationships.
Don’t disregard these elements when considering technology investments though; for example, as much as 60% of office space is unused and 30-40% of booked meeting rooms result in no-shows. That’s a tremendous waste of space, money, energy and time; not only can the right technology help you to manage your space, it can redefine how much you need, how it should be used and how it should be laid out. Physical context is so very important.
Keeping that in mind, it will now seem less strange to hear that the time when your firm is trying to save money is often the best time to look at the business strategy and how technology could be better employed to fulfill it. The other best times? When you’re considering relocation (and we’ve shown plenty of companies that far from outgrowing their office space, they’ve already got too much) or refurbishment - because that’s when you can design a truly integrated solution and find better ways of working.
To give you an idea of what can be achieved when a whole-company strategy is developed, we’ll take a look at a couple of recent projects, Belron and Catlin, where technology visioning has made a substantial impact.
Case study 1 - Belron
Belron is Autoglass’ parent company and one of the glazing repair and replacement industry’s most technologically advanced firms. This gives Belron a definite competitive advantage, and when planning a head office relocation from a Grade I listed building to a new 12-acre facility, a secure, flexible and future-proof ICT infrastructure lay at the core of the office design and fit-out. We were appointed in the very earliest stages to carry out a technology visioning exercise.
One key solution adopted was a radio frequency identification (RFID) smart card system. Smart cards are on the increase because they make access to facilities within an office environment so easy to manage. At Belron, the smart card system gives staff access to the front gates and, according to assigned permissions, various doors and floors, the cashless vending and payment system, and even multifunctional devices used for printing and scanning. The card is even used to collect printed materials, which has led to a 25% reduction of paper use: reduced overheads and less environmental impact.
Freedom to evolve was also important to Belron so a flexible and robust IT infrastructure was installed: a structured cabling system designed as a high and low level grid. This allowed us to incorporate cabled and wireless networks, and the system supports a complementary array of technologies, including: collaboration technologies; data, voice and audiovisual links; sophisticated audiovisual facilities, including video conferencing suites, interactive touchdown spaces and meeting rooms with digital signage; CCTV; and various building management technology, including room control systems.
Belron’s facilities manager, Jason Huggett, summed up the results: "In relocating, we wanted full functionality and technology capability, which would offer a high quality working environment for staff. Our new office achieves this and has reduced operational costs below previous levels thanks to paper savings and increased efficiency. We have also protected our future by building in the capability for emerging technologies such as telepresence, live filming and feeds. In short, we now have a well-managed, self-sufficient facility."
Beyond that, the new set-up has improved staff productivity, and the move saw 100% staff retention.
Case study 2 - Catlin
Bermudan-based Catlin’s new London office required an even larger IT infrastructure: £7m was spent on the IT fit-out, £2.6m of which was allocated to audiovisual equipment. In November 2009, Catlin, a commercial insurance underwriter, asked us to carry out a visioning exercise to identify the best technologies. We set up a think tank, comprising Catlin’s in-house IT, facilities management and project management staff, as well as the external design team, which included contractor BW Interiors, architect Artillery and project manager Interactive Space. Two particular areas emerged as priorities: telepresence and video-conferencing, along with an RFID "one-card" system.
The smart card gives every Catlin staff member secure and controlled access to the building and its facilities. Not only does it enable access control, cashless vending, locker access, meeting room booking, access to refreshments and pull printing, it will in the near future be linked to in-room facilities such as videoconferencing, allowing automatic user preference recognition. The difference with Catlin’s smart card is that all these functions are integrated via a single management platform, making it quick and easy to set up and modify, reducing operating costs and streamlining associated processes.
Elements of this project were entirely bespoke. We designed the telepresence videoconferencing rooms and system to guarantee flexibility and a significantly cheaper solution than off-the-shelf equivalents.
We paired technologies such as digital signage, meeting room presentation equipment, audio systems, in areas such as cafes and automated meeting room controls, with more advanced technology such as live meeting room status screens for all meeting rooms and a central display at reception. All these facilities were of course in addition to, but compatible with, the rest of the IT and communications infrastructure for the building.
Your project: where to start?
Ideally, you’ll start with a workplace technology efficiency audit, measuring your existing processes and workflows, office layouts, departmental relationships, operational costs and existing technologies.
Considering the results alongside the company’s objectives and overheads with a group made up of your facilities, IT and business heads, plus a visioning consultant, allows you to map out priorities and possibilities for improved efficiency and productivity, reduced operational costs and environmental impact, greater staff satisfaction and enhanced functionality. Then comes the design of the ICT infrastructure and a successful, future-proof working  environment that will see your company well into the next decade.

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