Jun 24th, 2020

PropTech Innovation in the Time of COVID-19

Mikki WardMikki Ward is responsible for developing and advancing EQ's use of AI, automation and data analytics across the portfolio.

In my role as the Vice President of Real Estate Technology for EQ Office, I spend my time aiming to optimize the technology solutions used in our properties. Before the pandemic, my tasks primarily involved facilitating cooperation in the workplace, reducing costs and the impact on the environment and allowing for more effective communication in real time between our tenants and our property management teams.

As we anticipate the lifting of quarantine across the country, though, commercial landlords and employers are now working hard on restoring some semblance of normalcy. Collectively, as a group of commercial real estate leaders, we are all focusing on the readiness, wellness, security and compliance issues we face in the wake of COVID-19. The task will require a smart plan and new ways of thinking — and also the acceleration of technology, so that we can provide a safe and secure workplace culture and environment to return to when the time is right. 

A number of technology solutions on the market can help not only to make more information available and to improve communication with tenants, but to promote health and well-being in our workplaces.

Creating smart short and long-term plans

It is important to set a range of transparent goals, both for the short and for the long term, to provide an atmosphere of safety and to prepare for a metered return to a collaborative environment. To adapt to the new COVID-19 reality, we need to develop 30-day and 90-day plans, as well as to develop roadmaps with a one-year time horizon and beyond. 

Analog measures as simple as increased sanitization, new communication channels and a mandate to wear protective face masks will come first and foremost. Beyond that, we now need to reconsider our current array of PropTech, the technology we use to help the real estate industry perform most efficiently. In the longer term, we need to implement new, cross-sector technologies. This will help redefine workplace expectations and give our valued tenants the option to come back to a safe, transparent and effective office environment.

Learning from a novel virus

The United States has remained largely unscathed by global pandemics since the Spanish flu of 1918, more than a century ago. While the lessons of that episode provide a rudimentary education on the importance of social distancing, we remain relatively inexperienced in dealing with public health crises on the scale of COVID-19. However, the insights of Bill Gates since H1N1 and other forward-looking thinkers in the past decade have provided useful, commonsense ideas that can guide us as the first wave begins to peak and as we plan for the second wave of infections. 

Many of us find ourselves looking to Asia in search of possible answers. The businesses there that have recently survived the waves of SARS, H1N1 and MERS may have something to teach us about novel ways to approach containment and mitigation in the workplace. 

New controls and technologies that are often mandatory in Asia include the use of public cameras, artificial intelligence, drones, mobile-phone tracking and temperature-checking tools. These are being used for identification, tracking and monitoring of the population, under the laws of each respective nation-state. Asian companies such as Megvii, Sensetime and the state-owned telecoms are now providing a range of technological solutions. This might include anything from sending out drones to deliver a warning to people who are not wearing masks in public, or triggering alarms when potentially infected people attempt to gain access to a controlled building.

Educating ourselves on best practices and implementation worldwide is important. However, we cannot rely on adopting wholesale the policies of countries whose political, geographical and economic realities are different from ours. Instead, we should consider ways of tailoring these solutions to our own cultural standards.

Calling on new PropTech innovations to promote health and safety 

Photo credit: Pexels

A number of technology solutions on the market can help not only to make more information available and to improve communication with tenants, but to promote health and well-being in our workplaces.

For example, Rise Buildings provides tools that can monitor building density. They include viewing heat maps, accessing cleaning and air-filter logs, and scheduling work in shifts to provide tenants direct, transparent access to the immediate and planned health and safety activities in a workspace. This will not only mitigate human error but help reduce densification and facilitate social distancing. These tools will give tenants a greater sense of safety and allow them to make choices about when and where they work and collaborate in the building every day.

Access-control systems such as Openpath work in concert with mobile devices to reduce tenants’ exposure to surfaces as they move through a building. They permit frictionless access from the curb, through the lobbies and elevators to the office door, to provide a more controlled, safe and secure environment. With an increasingly remote workforce, tenants and property management teams can benefit from this cloud-based technology, which can adjust door schedules and access privileges in real time from anywhere, to allow for changing work hours, while ensuring security and compliance. Mobile guest passes for visitors and mobile phone credentials for tenants allow hands-free access and limit the need to touch common surfaces or keycards and printed guest passes. Similarly, Morpho Wave access points offer tenants touchless entry if they are willing to trade their biometric data for increased safety.

Another solution that is more restrictive and which could potentially conflict with some analog solutions, such as face masks, is an AI-powered temperature-check system. This uses existing camera technology from CoStar and FLIR (forward-looking infrared cameras), installed in common lobbies, to establish a baseline temperature for each tenant. An alert sounds at the approach of an individual whose temperature is elevated, and a secondary manual evaluation is required before the designated person is permitted to enter the building. 

Additionally, the real estate industry has started to consider existing technologies in other industries for more UV light cleaning on high-touch surfaces. This might draw, for example, on technology used in medical operating rooms and laboratory environments. Using the safer spectrum of UV light, we can effectively clean high-touch areas, doors and bathroom-stall handles, and even provide cleaning cabinets for mobile phones and other electronics. Other areas for exploration include flash-cleaning of vacant elevator banks with higher levels of UV light.

To rebuild our office communities, we must optimize tenant safety

As we implement our 30-day to 90-day to 360-day strategies, commercial landlords should reinforce immediate analog measures with existing technologies. To pivot successfully, this will involve evaluating and assembling tools from other industries and countries, and introducing relevant new technologies into the workplace. 

Effective options to consider include biometrics and contact tracing, apps to enhance the tenant experience, and transparent access for everybody to real-time building environmental conditions. The goals should be to re-establish a collaborative community with an elevated perception of safety, where building tenants can make the most educated choices in returning employees to work again in multi-tenant office environments.

Mikki WardMikki Ward is responsible for developing and advancing EQ's use of AI, automation and data analytics across the portfolio.