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AI and Where the Smart Workplace is Headed (Podcast Recap)

Audiovisual January 25, 2023

Editor’s note: AVI’s Chief Technology Officer, Brad Sousa, recently appeared on the Modern CTO podcast hosted by Joel Beasley. Following is a summary of their conversation. You also can listen to the podcast here   

You do a lot of speaking at events and trade shows – what are you talking about there? 

I’m doing a half-day workshop at ISE 2023 in Barcelona (Jan. 31 - Feb. 3, 2023) on AI and integration into smart workplace. And I’ll be speaking at InfoComm in June on a similar topic. In addition, I’m giving a keynote about the emergence of collegiate eSports and what that looks like for private colleges and universities. So, those are the things I’ll be talking about in the months ahead.  

brad-sousa-imaage

Brad Sousa, CTO, AVI Systems

What’s going on in the AI world? 

Post-pandemic, everyone is trying to figure out what the purpose of the office is. Is it legacy and something you don’t need anymore? Do you need it for some purposes but not for others? And what does that really look like? 

We’ve been at the forefront of discussions with architects, spatial planners, global enterprises, and customers for two years now, trying to understand what it looks like. 

Our best experience and knowledge say that an office is no longer a place where you go to do focused work. You can do that from anywhere. Instead, people go to the office because: 

  • It offers an experience they can’t get over video; 
  • They need to rebuild a sense of workplace community;  
  • And they need time and proximity with others to create consensus or define a big initiative and push it forward. 

These are the three big reasons people are returning to the office. On top of that, there are three customer personas that are new data consumers as it relates to office space and its use.  

  • Corporate real estate operations teams need to predict who’s going to be in the office and where they’re going to work so they can cluster people into neighborhoods rather than people picking their own place to sit. They want to know how to obtain operational savings.  
  • Corporate real estate portfolio managers are responsible for real estate in multiple markets worldwide. This customer needs to figure out how much office space they need and whether there’s a way to reduce their overall real estate footprint (e.g., subleasing it, turning it into working capital to invest elsewhere).  
  • Workplace transformation leaders are trying to figure out how to use the office as an effective workforce resource. And, by doing that, bring workers back to the office and enable them to consume that office in a different way.  

The reality is that prior to the pandemic there was a need to understand the true cost of office space and today everyone wants to manage and monetize space in the post-pandemic world. Across the corporate footprint, real estate costs are: 

  • $3/sqft/month – at the real estate operations level (cost to operate the office) 
  • $30/sqft/month – at the real estate portfolio level (cost of the rent or square footage of the office) 
  • $300/sqft/month – at the workplace transformation level (cost to enable the office to be a productive workplace) 

AVI Systems has been working on an initiative over the last 18 months, and we’re moving from the pilot to the production phase of it. We’re working with a handful of large global customers who are interested in understanding and solving this problem, and AI brings us some interesting tools.  

For example: Say you live and work in Nashville, and you’re headed to your company’s office in San Diego, but you have no idea what resources that office has. How do I book a meeting room? How do I find a desk? Where will I park? 

We have AI tools that enable a worker, without knowledge of the space, to understand what meeting spaces they need, where to find a desk, and who among their colleagues will be in the office when they’re there. The tools can see you’re staying in a hotel and automatically reserve a parking space for you. Or allow you to use your phone as your badge to get through security when you enter the building.  

It’s an integrated approach that uses sensors, IoT, occupancy and access control, and meeting spaces. Then, AI correlates this data together and provides the:  

  • Corporate real estate operations team what they need (e.g., nobody will be in a particular space, so I can turn the power off).  
  • Corporate real estate portfolio managers what they need (e.g., when it’s time to start rationalizing some decisions). 
  • Workplace transformation leaders what they need because employees are more excited about going to the office because it’s an experience rather than just a place to write emails.  

How did this opportunity come about? Was it due to AVI’s buy-in to GPA? Talking to people who had these challenges? Or because you have the capabilities and resources to solve this? 

We have a distinct innovation model that we follow – part of that is our capabilities, and part of that is customers asking us to solve problems.  

For example, a customer might be a large global brand. One part of that company sees AVI as a media production company, and another (more the IT stack) sees us as a UC service provider that delivers collaboration resources (e.g., conference rooms, cloud services, voice). 

One of our customers said: you’ve provided us with 1,000s of conference rooms across the globe. Do you have any ideas about how people will consume the office post-pandemic? That’s how it started.  

From there, we formulated some forward-thinking opinions, and most of our opinions turned out to be true, which has given us a head start.  

But customers engaged with us because they want to have conversations about whether people will return to the office. Are conference rooms still needed? If they are, what do we need to do to help workers feel safe, comfortable, and excited about going to the workplace?  

Here’s the other part. We have customers in the U.S. engaging us. And we also have me, as the CTO and innovation leader working within AVI’s global practice. I’m talking with other CTOs and tech leaders globally, and this topic comes up as part of these conversations.   

So, you’re building tools to make unfamiliar spaces feel more familiar? 

Yes – but it’s not focused on the tech you deliver to the customers. It’s focused on the human consumption of it.   

For example, we have the Outlook calendar, and we can correlate that with sensors (i.e., not only did you reserve a desk, but sensors can tell us that you used the space). And we also use an app as your badge so AI can predict that the person at the front desk is actually you. And then, you go into the meeting room data (which is Outlook data, occupancy data, and cloud services data). And again, AI is correlating all of this data to confirm what spaces are being used and how.   

This rationalizes for different consumers of data how they think about workplace happiness or how much space they need. As a nerd, it’s super interesting how AI is driving these decisions.  

That said, AI also helps us understand human behavior. For example, when people don’t like something, they avoid it or stop using it. So, you have to start looking at trends and do a focus group to learn more about that sentiment.  

How do you decide what tech you’ll spend time on? 

If it’s a cool gadget, I’ll observe it. If it changes the human condition about a human problem that’s close to me, that’s when I get into it. That moves tech up the stack and makes it something I want to spend time with.  

I think whether it improves the human condition or not is going to be the outcome of what sticks and gets energy behind it.

Where are you going in 2023? What advice would you offer IT leaders for 2023? 

It starts with cause and purpose. If I have a good handle on the bigger purpose, then it translates into a destination. There’s a place I want to end up. If I have a good picture of that, then I’m going to organize the big things in my life around helping me arrive where I’m supposed to be in life – that includes work and everything else.   

If I’m reading the landscape properly, there’s an opportunity for me to lead not only other tech leaders but also to create a community around CIOs and CTOs and help develop that community. I find myself being drawn into relationships with like-minded leaders, and I’ve watched others like you build that kind of community. So, I’ll use my voice to level up a community of CTOs and CIOs.  

At AVI, we’ll keep driving the part of our business that centers around collaboration. This part has been on fire since the pandemic and will continue to grow. But it will eventually get eclipsed by the need to create workplace experiences and conduct corporate broadcasts to share information. Everyone is becoming a content creator. Executives in global corporations are waking up to this, and I want to help us figure out how to do that well rather than just create stuff.  

Do you create campaigns or multi-media for executives? 

We partner with content creation firms that are focused on that and do it well. Our space is not what’s being said but creating the environment for how it’s being said and to whom. There’s a level of interconnectivity in that.  

For example, it’s pretty standard that executives who are customers of ours go live from their house or office onto CNBC or Bloomberg. In the past, it was a studio they had to drive to. But today they can broadcast from wherever they happen to be.  

 

Thinking about the next big thing?

As a technology integrator, we’re always thinking about how our customers will use the next thing. We’re at the forefront of this, are watching to see what direction it takes, and will share what we learn and think about it along the way.  

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