Get ready for the new tech-driven intelligent workplace providers

Shelley Street SydneyMacquarie Group's ABW offices at One Shelley Street Sydney. Image courtesy of Woods Bagot

By Trevor Clarke, Tech Research Asia research director

Back when activity based working (ABW) was starting to gain real traction in places like Australia in 2013, we ran some research on which companies were most influential on the organisational leaders that were driving adoption of the work style. For many technology vendors and service providers the results from our more than 50 in-depth interviews with ABW adopters (now more than 250+) were somewhat of a shock. They weren't even close to being in the top 3, despite agressively promoting the idea of work anywhere, anytime through mobile tech and collaboration or social enterprise tools. The leading influencers were: #1 workpace strategy specialists; #2 interior designers; #3 peers that had adopted ABW; #4 real estate management firms and furniture providers.

The results didn't mean that technology wasn't important to ABW or any of the other flexible working strategies. On the contrary, it was considered critical to get right and pretty much underpinned everything (see our checklist for guidance here). But technology providers simply didn't have a vision or narrative that was resonating with organisational leaders that also had to consider how to best use physical space while changing cultures. Most traditional tech suppliers were - and many still very much are - silent on these forces of intelligent workspaces. They instead focus on tech and process, with a little change management thrown in for good measure. This relegated them to implementation roles that came much after workplace strategy had been set.

In essence, tech providers and enterprise technology leaders often missed out on influencing the direction of ABW projects. As an example, I remember approaching several large tech vendors about our ABW research and being told that none of their customers were interested in it, despite several of their largest accounts already undertaking pilots or implementation of the work style in new office buildings being part of our research. The common issue was that the CIO in these clients wasn't driving the ABW project and thus the tech vendors weren't aware it was about to fundamentally change the way these companies approached "work" and with it the use of technology. In many cases, we witnessed technology decisions such as the use of cloud-based office productivity tools (Office 365 and Google Apps), audio visual systems, room booking systems, and much more decided by other c-level executives on the advice or influence of workplace strategists and interior designers. (A side note - this still happens in some places across Asia Pacific today, despite versions of ABW being prominent in many new office buildings.)

Indeed at that time, if you wanted to really understand ABW you didn't approach a tech vendor. You went to a Veldhoen & Co or someone similar. Today, things are different and everyone is trying to position themselves as an ABW-capable provider including many technology service providers and vendors, along of course with interior designers, workplace strategy firms, and anyone else associated with the use of physical offices. It's a very noisy and now supply saturated market. I'm far from convinced that the vast majority of these providers can really deliver on the ABW philosophy - which demands a unique vision and approach for each organisation - as most offer simplified and commodified approaches.

But ABW is really now the status quo in places like Australia and New Zealand (less so across the rest of Asia Pacific) and isn't going to give any provider a point of differentation or any status as a thought leader. And it won't really give adopters the same benefits of a reputation for being progressive and an employer of choice. The leading workplace strategy and interior design firms recognised this some time ago. A common comment we heard from this group was "everybody is just copying Shelley St". A reference to the first real major adoption of ABW in Australia and probably Asia Pacific by Macquarie Group in 2008 in Sydney. These already influential ABW players were preparing themselves for what comes next in workplace strategy and design.

For a while there was a view that health and wellbeing programs would be the next major trend. Make office designs more sustainable with natural lighting and greenery, introduce standing desks, implement the use of wearable devices to encourage activity, and other measures were and are part of this vision. The assumption being that if you make workers healthier they'll likely be more productive.

Others were positioning a new component of the sharing economy as the next evolution. Not just content with coworking spaces, this vision saw empty or underutilised office space, meeting rooms, and even homes be "shared", or more bluntly rented out, on a platform similar to Wework.

I'm a big fan of both of these newer post-ABW visions and I contend they'll continue to get traction. But I don't believe they capture the role of emerging techonlogy such as AI or the change towards "as-a-service" consumption of offerings currently hitting the market. You see, what pretty much all of the workplace strategy, interior design, architectural, construction, real estate management, and furniture companies lacked was technology implementation and advisory capabilities. Now that most of the leading players in these sectors recognise this, they are taking serious steps to address the shortcoming. But there isn't much point in them offering a me-too end user computing service offering. So they are looking at emerging AI and IoT-related technology offerings.

Woods Bagot's recently announced Superspace strategy is a great example of this change.

Superspace by Woods Bagot

The stated philosophy behind it is:

"SuperSpace explores the dynamic relation between space and people through the use of artificial intelligence (AI), spatial cognition and data spatialization to develop algorithmic design systems analyzing, visualizing, and operating architectural and urban environments. Data is gleaned from public data sources, observation studies, behavioral mappings and bespoke client data to create scientific human-centric design methodology."

It's a signficant new development for one of the world's leading architectural and interior design firms. And it's all centred around emerging tech in the workplace; changing physical spaces from static environments into dynamic ones. Notably, when I spoke with the Woods Bagot team about Superspace, they told me that when they were presenting the concept to the partners in the firm for approval, they included a slide which showed who their new competitors were. On it weren't the traditional architects or interior designers, but rather major tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft. They posited that there was a form of convergence between sectors involved in workplaces occuring that would see players from all sectors at the same time competing against each other while also potentially being customers and partners. Something I wholeheartedly agree with.

There are also other new providers coming to market that will join this fray, like the start-up Spaceconnect. Born in the cloud and using contemporary technology like artificial intelligence, machine learning, iBeacons and automation to provide a space management experience the next level up from ABW is what Spaceconnect is all about. It's service is available on a consumption basis (meaning you pay by the month with opex) and they are also working on a personal AI assistant, in a similar vein to x.ai, also known as Amy. In less than a year, Spaceconnect has already started working with some of Australia's leading financial services firms to take them to the next thing beyond ABW.

I expect many more of these two types of developments to come to market in the near future. Everyone is searching for what comes after ABW, and the great thing about emerging technology today is that it can be leveraged by anyone and not just traditional tech companies. If you are an organisational leader in Asia Pacific looking at a workplace strategy program in the near future then I encourage you to look into these newer opportunities - don't settle for yesterday's ABW. And if you are a provider that hasn't yet set it's strategy - get to work because this converged new post-ABW market isn't slowing down.