by Revathi Greenwood, Marcio DaCosta and Kathleen Cahill — Originally published in the March/April 2019 issue of BOMA Magazine.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever considered the following: “Could a robot do my job better than I can?” Maybe it was the latest security installation or upgrade at your building, or perhaps you read about the hotel in Japan that’s staffed by robots. Regardless of the source, the reality of robots wandering a commercial property and performing basic management tasks is still any years away from being implemented broadly, and study after study still indicates that when it comes to customer service and experiences, people prefer interacting with a person. In fact, half of the robots in that aforementioned Japanese hotel were eliminated for that very reason.
But, despite this preference, the quest for innovation isn’t going anywhere, and neither are transformational technologies like robots, drones, mobile apps, autonomous vehicles and even blockchain. By being well-versed in these technologies, property owners and managers can leverage them to positively impact the tenant experience, protect client investments and increase their on-the-job efficiency.
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!
Building security is one of the most promising applications when it comes to near-term implementation of robotics technologies. These new options can far exceed human capabilities in keeping buildings secure and can make a property manager’s job easier.
Leading the way in this area are companies specializing in autonomous security robots, with two-way audio/video communication and mobile public-address systems. When you think of building robots, you might think of R2-D2 from Star Wars or the robot from Lost in Space, and companies like Knightscope are getting us closer to that reality. The robotics firm has teamed up with security company Allied Universal to deploy security robots that can patrol properties with thermal imaging and license plate recognition capabilities. However, most applications of security technologies will be subtler. From quick-response (QR) codes and apps that provide you with building access at a given time of day to biometric security, innovations in building access are reaching new heights. So, while security robots may not be the norm today, don’t be surprised if tenants start requesting the latest building access control systems soon.
Things like advanced security cameras can identify anomalies in a space and provide simultaneous feedback to personnel, notifying them of potential trouble. Facial recognition, a form of biometric security, is currently being used in office buildings around the world to tighten security and easily identify those who do and don’t belong in an office. These technologies augment human capabilities and can help property managers identify threats to building security much more quickly and efficiently.
HERE TO SERVE
As experiential management and concierge services become more common to boost the tenant experience, the most successful concierge-type robots are those that enhance the human presence. Robots can be especially helpful in the role of a lobby greeter or for a check-in function. Many such robots use a screen interface, such as an iPad, and visitors who enter a building can use the robot’s screen to give their information and who they are there to see. The
robot then can notify the right person to come collect the guest, which automates what would otherwise be a manual process.
This elevates the experience for those entering a building; streamlines the process for property managers and tenants; and organizes the lobby and traffic flow. This type of technology is an economical option and also can be used on other floors of a high-rise office building in situations where it does not make sense to have a receptionist or additional staffing.
Today, robots programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) can even help an employee find an open desk or conference room for work. But, as these technologies become more advanced, this robot also might be able to consider many other factors when making these decisions; for example, an employee’s personal preferences or meeting calendar could be assessed when choosing an open desk. These types of capabilities enhance the employee experience. Presently, building owners and property managers are still determining how these kinds of concierge services might play a role in tenant retention.
Some instances of companies in this space include SoftBank Robotics, which is currently developing a concierge robot with AI capabilities and the ability to speak multiple languages. Another robot, Pepper, from the same company, has humanoid features and moves, speaks and interacts with guests. For cleaning and landscaping, a company called ViaBot is developing an outdoor facilities management robot that will be able to clean and sweep, cut grass and power wash. It’s likely that other companies have similar projects in the works. Robots like these are still in the early development and proof of concept phases, but they may offer a glimpse into what’s on the horizon.
RESISTANCE IS (MAYBE) FUTILE
While these more interactive options are exciting, the trust level, privacy concerns and unease at the sight of robots wandering around remain challenges to adoption and implementation. As with many technologies, the initial cost can impede widespread deployment, especially with a slower return on investment. Robotics companies are trying to resolve these challenges as they also continue to advance the capabilities of these technologies.
Building owners and property managers are actively looking into robotics technologies and their potential impact on building operations. In their current state, robots can be used to complement the skills of a human employee. However, the service-oriented role of the property manager requires cognitive and emotional intelligence when working with different types of tenants and their preferences, and robots do not have these abilities—at least not yet. At the same time, they do create consistencies and efficiencies with security and automation of manual tasks that can free up property teams to focus on more important value-add activities.
These potential advantages are continuing to drive robotics development within the commercial real estate industry, despite the current challenges.
A PROPTECH WORLD
Along with robotics, other technologies are steadily gaining momentum at the property level. Whether driven by a need for more amenities, more security or more efficient operations, these tools may help execute clients’ goals, create a memorable tenant experience and protect asset value. Among them are the following:
• Tenant Mobile Applications. Digital tools can improve the tenant experience with multiple communication touchpoints, speed of service delivery and customized customer experiences. A mobile app can be a great solution for communicating with tenants. Concierge services, such as dry cleaning, work order requests or booking conference rooms, can be done through a mobile app and facilitated by the property team. Office workers now can use apps to control temperature and lighting or to send locations and pictures of workplace issues, enabling the management team to deliver better service.
• Drones. From a property management perspective, drones can provide many benefits in terms of security, building inspections and space utilization. Drones are a powerful resource for imaging and thermodynamics. As an example: A building engineer could use drones for a post-hurricane building inspection to detect water damage, cracks in the roof or other issues. Drones also can enhance a building’s security presence with their mobility and ability to analyze thousands of data points and identify anomalies in a space. Drone manufacturers are continuing to refine AI for space utilization and design purposes.
• Autonomous Vehicles. Mobility shifts are expected to disrupt commercial real estate, both in the near and long term. Ride sharing is already impacting how people commute, and the rise of autonomous vehicles has the potential to truly transform commercial real estate. Some cities may adopt “smart landscapes” with better designed roads that allow for walking and dedicated biking and scooter lanes. In the future, buildings will have less—or even no—parking, but much larger pick-up and drop-off areas. This will present myriad challenges and opportunities for developers and owners to repurpose parking facilities. In fact, some building owners and developers already are renovating or building parking garages so they can be converted to a different use in the future should autonomous vehicles render them obsolete.
• Blockchain. Blockchain, often described in terms of its disruptive capabilities, is another
technology that has potential use for building owners and property managers. As property
teams continue to collect more and more data at their facilities, buildings become even more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Blockchain is a secure network that may be able to help share information within a building—including tenant billing, equipment warranties and indoor occupancy tracking. Despite this potential, entirely practical applications for the technology are still being explored.
COMING TO A CITY NEAR YOU
New technologies have not only transformed buildings, but also cities. Cushman & Wakefield’s Tech Cities 2.0 report uses an analysis of all major North American markets to place the top 25 cities into three categories based on how important the tech sector is to the local economy and real estate market. Areas like Silicon Valley and New York City made the list, but the study found that economies in smaller urban centers, such as Provo, Utah, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, are increasingly dependent on tech companies and innovations. The cities expected to prosper in the future are those that will be able to facilitate the rapid adaptation of new technologies.
The past few years have been a time of constant flux in real estate, in which the past and future of the industry are coming to a head via technology. But, for all the innovation or uncertainties technology may bring, one thing that is certain is the inevitable march of progress.
Property professionals will need to keep their fingers on the pulse of how these new tools will
impact their roles and the assets they manage. The possibility of incorporating robots at some point also may impact building design and necessitate capital improvements, particularly if these devices will need to access parts of a building beyond a physical barrier. In addition, the more technology, the more paths of entry there are for hackers to access a building system. As buildings become smarter, cybersecurity must be top-of-mind, and property team members, along with equipment vendors, must understand their roles in managing cybersecurity.
The most successful property managers today are those who wear many hats, from vendor and tenant services to building and property maintenance and upkeep. The most successful property managers of tomorrow will do all these things, but also have at their disposal the resources to make their days more efficient and productive. They will be able to anticipate the technological needs and concerns of both current tenants and future ones. They’ll be able to speak to the latest and greatest technologies for office security, building maintenance and more.
But, those technologies will still need a person behind the scenes making decisions about how best to deploy them. As a result, the human touch isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon in commercial real estate.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Revathi Greenwood is the Americas head of Research with Cushman & Wakefield. Marcio DaCosta is Cushman & Wakefield’s director of Emerging Technologies, Global Technology Solutions; and Kathleen Cahill is Cushman & Wakefield’s leader of Emerging Tech Partnerships.