Employees returning to the office in the midst of the pandemic are bound to arrive with a new set of questions: What health precautions have been put in place? How crowded is the cafeteria? Which meeting rooms are available? How do visitors gain entry to the building?
To ease their adjustment, a growing number of office managers are using mobile apps that offer the answers that workers seek.
Building apps are designed to connect office tenants to maintenance, security and logistics systems and community-building programs. They began gaining traction in 2018 as a way to make offices more efficient and have taken off in the pandemic as employers try to entice workers back on site by making work-related tasks safe and convenient.
“COVID has definitely accelerated the development, accelerated the use and expanded the use cases,” said Meghan Rooney, senior vice president of operations for experience management at JLL, a global commercial real estate firm.
The apps can be customized for each location and specific tenant and expanded as needed. Employees can use the app to enter a building, reserve conference rooms and request maintenance. Safety information, such as in a building emergency or a natural disaster, can be disseminated quickly. Building managers can monitor the use of workrooms and other locations.
In the pandemic, the apps can also help the office feel safer by communicating building-wide health information and reducing physical interactions. But the rise of these apps, which can track workers in a building, have also prompted warnings from privacy advocates.
Still, the idea that each office building should have its own app is becoming the industry standard, Rooney said. She added, “Every conversation with investors now includes, ‘What app would you recommend?’”
JLL increased its investment in HqO, a building app platform, in a fundraising round last year. Other companies creating building management apps include Cohesion, Rise Buildings and HiLo.
In the Chicago Loop, 15 companies in an office tower known as 77 West Wacker began using the TranswesternHub building app from Cohesion in June. Rosalyn Griffin, an office manager at Rothschild & Co., an investment bank with offices there, can use her phone for simple tasks like submitting repair orders or getting notified when visitors have arrived, which gives her more freedom to leave her desk.
One of her favorite features is calling for the elevator from the app when she steps into the building. “You turn the corner, and it’s there,” she said. “It’s super easy.”
The app benefits other employees in the building, too: No one has to worry about forgetting or losing a key card, she said, and those who work late and on weekends can control the office temperature and reserve conference rooms.
The health and safety features of office building apps have become a focus in the pandemic. Coronavirus protocols, contact-tracing information and emergency alerts can be disseminated via an app.
“We don’t have to rely on each business getting information out to their staff,” said Annie Panteli, head of operations at 22 Bishopsgate, a 62-story office tower in London’s financial district that opened in 2020. Bishopsgate worked with Smart Spaces to create a custom app for the building.
Tenants are looking to increase “contactless” building operations, Panteli added. Building apps offer some of these, including the ability for guests to preregister for a visit and receive a QR code to scan for entry, rather than checking in at a security desk. “We still have staff in the lobby, but they act more as greeters,” she said.
The TranswesternHub system offers touch-free automatic doors for the parking garage, building entrance, elevator, conference rooms and restrooms.
The app is “an important piece of technology that helps people feel safe coming back to the office,” said Myrna Coronado-Brookover, senior vice president of asset services at Transwestern, a commercial real estate company, who helped oversee the introduction of the app in the building.
Building apps also offer the ability to monitor the use of conference rooms, cafeterias and parking lots in an effort to improve operations. This data collection is part of the larger move toward “proptech,” an approach to real estate that allows companies to track how many people are in different parts of a building, which can help save money on heating, cooling and lighting in unused areas.
But privacy advocates say they are worried about the collection of workers’ personal data.
Companies have tracked employee phone and computer use for years, but these apps “take employee surveillance to a new level,” said Lorrie Faith Cranor, an engineering and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.
The apps can cause stress for employees who feel their movements at work are being monitored, she said, especially if the system flags personal information such as when employees who do not work together spend long periods in one another’s offices or when someone is using the restroom frequently.
Companies should be transparent about what information they are tracking, how they are using it, who will have access to it and why, Cranor said. Privacy practices should differ depending on the types of data collected, she said, with the idea that the more personal the information, the more restricted the access should be.
To help ease privacy concerns, companies using building apps should anonymize data whenever possible, said Paul Rohmeyer, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Identifying individuals may be important, for example, when contact tracing or investigating a crime committed on the property, but the system default should not be to identify every employee all the time, he said.
The tracking software in building apps should be limited for other reasons as well, Rohmeyer said. Corporate espionage hackers may be able to identify business processes or what types of deals are in the works by tracking who is meeting together, for example, or they may track the routines of senior leaders.
Companies should also be thoughtful about what data is stored and for how long, Rohmeyer said. Employee movement data may be retained for a week for coronavirus tracking, while anonymized statistics on cafeteria use may be loaded into a database.