Over the last four months, Dinesh Malkani, CEO of global workplace technology brand Smarten Spaces, has been busy: he and his team have rolled out deployments for hybrid workspaces across 43 major cities in 14 countries, and they expect this growth curve to continue over the next three to six months.
"We had the technology at the right time," he told People Matters. The former President of Cisco Systems India, Dinesh founded Smarten Spaces in 2017 along with other former members of the Cisco India leadership team, and when the pandemic happened, they became very busy adjusting their technology for the new normal. "Our first version was on safety and security, the second version was on flexible workspaces, and now it covers the entire end to end space management aspect of the hybrid workplace which is good space management," he said.
In this conversation, he shares his thoughts on what the hybrid workplace involves, technology-wise, and where it might be going next.
Could you share your perspective on the workplace transformation that's been taking place this year?
We have observed a few phases to this workplace transformation. There was the first phase, where everyone worked from home. Then came the workplace readiness phase, where a certain percentage of people started coming back, and the focus for workplaces became entirely on safety and security: how to keep the workforce safe, how to introduce social distancing at the workplace, how to comply with government requirements around temperature checks and monitoring of entry. That lasted about six months.
Now, we are in the flexible working phase, where companies are very gradually bringing back more people, but as they do, they need to reconsider how they manage the workforce. Splitting teams up is part of it, recreating them as smaller teams that can still work well together. Social distancing is another part, and that is where many companies run into the main problem, which is: how can you distribute your people across the space that you have, and the days when you are allowed to bring them back? That's what most companies are grappling with today, and I think they will continue to grapple with it for another six months
The phase after this will be the introduction of a true hybrid workplace, which looks not only at seating space and at head count, but also at culture.
From your perspective as a technopreneur in digitized spaces, what would the ideal hybrid workplace look like?
It is a matter of using technology to bring culture, workspace optimization, and work priorities together. Let's look at what's been happening since the first phase. We feel isolated, and so we want to get back to the office, but we don't want to go there every day.
And when we do go back, we also want the opportunity to work with our colleagues, to sit where we can easily be in touch with each other, to be productive as employees. We want to feel connected with the organization and carry our our work seamlessly.
And so, we introduce the technological capabilities to make these things happen.
And, we want everything to be fully automated, because it is very challenging to do these things manually. Here's a simple example: let's say you have five floors in your building, and seats in all of them. Social distancing requires the seats to be one meter apart. Imagine taking a tape measure and manually measuring the distance between seats!
And then there will always be unexpected events that are very difficult to manage manually. An employee will call and say they can't come in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next two weeks, and someone will have to substitute. Imagine redoing the entire schedule using traditional methods. You need a system that is smart enough to automatically handle all that.
What technologies do you consider most important to the hybrid workplace?
Three key technologies are going to be required. The first is Internet of Things, where occupancy sensors are becoming more and more widely used alongside systems such as video analytics to maintain social distancing.
The second technology is AI. Remember, IoT devices generate data, and AI will be highly utilized to use this data for space optimization. It will play a huge role in distributing the workforce in a way that allows the maintenance of productivity and culture while matching the constraints of the workplace. The example I mentioned, of working out the seating? AI can do that in an hour. We have worked on sites where we've run the floor plans for 20 storeys through the algorithm and it has automatically identified all the seats that can be socially distanced from each other.
The third technology for the hybrid workplace will be the one common personal device we all have: the mobile phone. We will need to bring all of the different technologies that we have together, into one single mobile app, so that for example, an employee can use it for safety purposes—making health declarations, inputting temperature check results—and for work purposes such as finding the best place to sit. Employees can come in, use their app to find the available seats and choose one, or find a colleague.
The hybrid workplace will require the utilization of such technologies in order to be successful for the company and the employee.
What challenges have your customers most commonly brought to you?
The biggest challenge that they want us to solve is around the workplace seating plan, because half of their seats are gone and they need to figure out where to put the rest. Next to that, they want to know how to allocate the remaining seats: sometimes they want employees to be able to choose their seats, sometimes they want the software to assign the seats automatically. And the third thing they want us to solve is workforce rostering. Employees need to know who is on duty on what date, they want the ability to change some of the assignments. They need to be rostered on days when the people they most need to work with are also present. You might think it can be done manually, but when you have 3,000 people, the permutations are going to be very difficult.
For all these functions, our customers want full automation, and that makes sense, because as I have mentioned, making the shift to a hybrid workplace on a manual basis is going to be very, very challenging. It's going to make employees' productivity drop, because they will be grappling with the changes and the uncertainty. But technology, especially the combination of the three technologies I mentioned earlier, will smoothen the entire process out.
And our customers are also saying that in the future, they want enough data to see how the workspace is being used, so that they can make decisions around how much space to give up. After all, they are all looking at cutting costs—whether by reducing the space a little, or more aggressively, or simply not taking any new space.
How do you see the future of the hybrid workplace evolving?
It's interesting: for the first time I've seen workplace people and HR people and technology people all working very closely together to define what the hybrid workplace for that organization will look like and how they want to execute it In some big companies, even the CEOs are getting involved because they want to have a good understanding of how the new workplace will impact the culture and the financials.
Hybrid workplaces are already showing a lot of benefits.
Productivity is always going to be higher than in the old world of fixed workplaces. Costs are lower, because you don't need as much space. Even the managers' jobs are easier, because the more you can automate and the more you can leverage on AI, the fewer tedious tasks the manager has to handle.
And one more great thing about hybrid workplaces is that they will give a lot of women opportunities to work from home, or from anywhere. A lot of talent that is not in the main cities will also have the opportunity to participate in economic growth. And if we can continue down this path even post-pandemic, I think the positive impact will continue to be even greater.