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The tech workspace hype cycle (and how to escape it)

Don’t buy the hype about 5G, forget blockchain (for now), and spend money on boring ducting rather than fancy sensors. Nuveen’s Jack Sibley speaks exclusively to Mix about the workplace tech innovations to embrace, and those to treat with caution. David Thame reports.

20/04/2020 5 min read
40 Holborn Viaduct

Jack Sibley is head of innovation and tech strategy at Nuveen, one of the world’s largest office property asset managers.

Nuveen is one of the big beasts. It acts as investment manager for a host of sovereign wealth funds, household-name insurers and mega pension funds. Its office schemes, including the 70 St Mary Axe ‘The Can of Ham’ skyscraper in London, are unmissable landmarks.

How Nuveen approaches tech really does matter. And the message from Nuveen’s Head of Innovation and Tech Strategy, Jack Sibley, is that tech in the future workplace may not look like you think it will.

Businesses like Nuveen expect to own buildings for six to eight years, which is long-enough to outlast any current fad or trend, but not long enough for a clear view of the future. The upshot is they need to focus on basics like the customer experience, along with ensuring there is enough ducting and a sufficiently flexible building skeleton to adapt to whatever comes next.

Jack suggests tech’s real significance is not in over-sold 5G connectivity, or fancy cooling systems, or smart lighting that can flick the switch on or off when office workers push up the carbon dioxide levels. No, the impact will be in a changed, vastly more dynamic landlord, who will have a much larger role in who does what and where. And this includes turning the fit-out tap on and off.

Nuveen expects the sustainability and climate change agenda to make itself firmly felt in workplace design and management. There will be more emphasis on energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality such as the prevalence of particulate matter. What absolutely won’t be happening soon is anything that looks like fully integrated artificial intelligence in building management, or any of the fancy approaches involving block chain. ‘Pipe dreams at the moment,’ says Jack.

Remote diagnostics and tenant engagement apps have a role, providing a digital overlay for tenants, behind which sits a lot of fancy technology. As the cost of the sensors (for air quality, for instance) come down, landlords will adopt this kind of tech, but routine adoption is still some way off.

Jack is not so much cool as he is watchful about new tech solutions – and points to Gartner’s Hype Cycle as one way not to get over-excited. Devised by consultants at Gartner, it tracks each innovation as it passes through various stages of enthusiasm and disappointment, ending in a stable state of success or failure. The five phases start with the light-bulb moment when it emerges that something is technologically possible, followed by what Gartner call a Peak of Inflated Expectations, and thereafter a Trough of Disillusionment, Slope of Enlightenment and Plateau of Productivity.

Jack suggests those involved in the tech workplace of the future would do well to keep this Hype Cycle in mind. Because not everything in workplace tech is going to be a winner, and much of it will go through a period of intense doubt.

St Mary Axe (can of ham)

‘Of course, what a landlord or developer is prepared to try depends on their risk profile. We pick a few innovations we want to trial knowing that we can absorb the risk of failure, because we like to see things tried and tested, even if it has to be by us,’ Jack explains.

In the United States, Nuveen are looking at new water-saving technology, which promises to cut consumption by as much as 40%. They are also looking at new integrated security technology yoked to 5G technology and mobile phones. It’s hard to know if this innovation will make the grade. ‘There’s a problem with 5G indoors, and there’s also Apple software complications. But we’re tracking it – it might make sense for some assets,’ says Jack.

5G makes an interesting test of the approach of serious international office market players like Nuveen.

5G is at the top of Gartner’s current Hope Cycle projections (just a fraction ahead of biochips – a potentially revolutionary medical diagnostic tool). This means 5G is at the most dangerous point in the life of a new technology, the moment when hopes are at their highest, before a sharp dose of reality and disillusion sets in.

‘I wouldn’t say I’m sceptical about 5G but there are definitely areas that are over-hyped. The roll-out will be over a much longer timeframe than people are now saying and, in the early days, the benefits won’t be much greater than for 4G mobile,’ admits Jack.

‘5G is a prospect to be considered over the next three years, definitely, but what we need to know now is that a building can be upgraded to 5G connectivity. In the longer term, it could be a great support to facilities management, but in the next 12 months, probably not – and I’m not sure, even if it was available, that real estate could adopt it fast enough for that deadline.’

For now, Nuveen is more interested in standard mobile, WiFi and broadband connectivity and prefers not to wait for super over-sold tech solutions. ‘Sometimes people are looking for the magic bullet, something that will be relevant for 5-10 years but, if you are waiting for that magic bullet, you’ll be waiting a long time. When we run investment cases for new buildings, we look at the basic infrastructure, the building’s skeleton, and things like natural light. We do not look in the same way at the latest app or the latest clever sensor, because that is not the right place to look for sustainability.’

Nuveen is not the only player in the property market with an eye on the ways tech can change workspace. But they are among the canniest. If their approach is more widely shared, it could mean the workspace of the future opts for lighter, brighter tech than many current predictions suggest.

Beware! Investors and developers are watching you

Tech in the workplace might not be the biggest innovation that office designers and interior fit-out specialists have to contend with. Nuveen’s Jack Sibley says that asset managers and landlords are working on ways to package design and fit-out services for potential tenants as they strive to provide a seamless service for their occupiers.

‘What we want is a single pane of glass, a consistent interaction, between the occupier and the landlord, because today occupiers have to deal with agents, then property managers, then with fit-out firms, and the aim for us is to streamline this process. The outcome might be that you deal with all those same people but occupiers do it through us, the landlord, through one interface. That would make the landlord a real partner for the occupier, and not just a rent collector,’ Jack predicts.

The idea is that tenants would be approached about office fit-out early in the courting process, before leases are signed. The landlord’s one-stop-shop would put them in touch with trusted design partners who could show them how the new floorspace could work to meet their specific needs.

‘This is about giving tenants options. They may want help with their workplace strategy, or they might want to be left alone. The landlord might end up more involved or not.’

Jack predicts that, at some point, there will be vertical integration so that landlords don’t just act as a clearing house or consultant on design and fit-out, but also offer a direct hands-on service. ‘It must feel to the occupier like there is no inconsistency between the different services that affect their workspace. We’re trying to make real estate easier and more convenient, more enjoyable, and not a fragmented headache,’ says Jack.

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