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access control

Digital Access Control Is the Dream, But It Will Take Time

Allowing tenants to be able to enter and navigate a building without needing a key or pass has grown to be a bit of an elusive holy grail in the commercial real estate industry. It is a widely held belief that for any tenant experience app it’s the magic lockpick (pun intended) that will ‘force’ users to have the app on their phone and due to that use other functions the app provides (whether it’s food ordering, issue reporting or booking meeting rooms). Personally, I believe that’s absolutely the wrong way of looking at the problem – the other functions need to be useful, user-friendly and alluring enough to make people use them, access control included or not.

Turning your smartphone into a key is simply not enough, from one app tenants need to be able to order food, report issues, book rooms, sign up for events, read the news and find colleagues – in a couple of clicks they can find everyone specializing in artificial intelligence or PropTech in their building. If one thinks about it, all of these are not too complicated technologically but need to be done in a simple and pleasant way. When it comes to daily office chores – user experience is the king. The system could be linking tenants with parking, giving them wellbeing and productivity tips. It could also help immensely in understanding how people use spaces & how they can be improved to help us be happier and more effective. This is the dream worth pursuing and making sure it’s extraordinarily pleasant to use – twisting someone’s hand by making the app the only way to get into the building is… well, poor idea.

Nevertheless simply replacing access badges with smartphone app can bring a wide variety of benefits.

Better Security

In a typical office building where badges are the standard access control tool there are quite a few risks, that – unless we’re a security specialist – don’t think that much about.

For one, people constantly lose their badges. And because they also leave them at home so often, they tend not to really know they’ve lost them. If they bother to request a substitute card ‘for the day’, we end up having a wild-card-free-access laying somewhere for around twenty four hours. If they don’t report, or even go on holiday without reporting it – it can be weeks.

Smartphone-based access solves that on many levels: firstly, we don’t lose phones often. Secondly, if we do, we start a wild search, and we definitely return home to pick our work phone. Thirdly, even if someone does find our phone, they cannot open it and hence cannot use it to enter our office building

Accountability & Safety

In a surprising amount of buildings, access control badges do not carry pictures of the users (that was the case in the last two buildings we’ve occupied). It’s bad, because someone else can use your card (then again, when is the last time somebody stopped you when you were swiping your card, or going through a turnstile to check if you carry your own card?), but also because people end up with cards of their colleagues. If you ever attempt to figure out who accessed a particular space, or who tapped in when there’s an emergency evacuation, you’ll have a lot of unreliable data!

Side note: I did leave a meeting once with someone else’s smartphone, but it took me approximately five minutes to realize I don’t have two daughters and a dog, so the smartphone with this background photo was clearly not mine.

Safer & More Comfortable Visitor Handling

Talk to any receptionist or any security person and they’ll tell you they hate guest-passes. Unless the system forces visitors to drop the visitor badge in the turnstile in order to be able to leave, 20% of the time the visitors will probably leave with it. And if the system does require visitors to drop the card in the turnstile, there’s a good chance they’ll realize “I left it somewhere upstairs.”

That’s why sending e-mail invitations that allow visitors access – either by downloading an app or through a boarding-pass-like QR code – are the dream. It’s safe, it doesn’t bother the local team and you won’t have to worry about hundreds of cards taken out somewhere (seriously, ask any management consultant and they’ll tell you they have a drawer full of visitor cards from all over the world—I was one of them).

Digital access control is also useful for handling spaces where people should have time-limited access like for instance rentable meeting rooms in co-working or conference suites.

Not So Easy

The road to that is however not without its challenges. There are a lot of old access control systems out there and not all of them can be integrated with modern cloud solutions. Retrofitting tends not to be cheap, and some of the new access control systems require additional cabling. The turnstiles are often the biggest problem, while they’re key for the good “entrance experience.”

The system has to be reliable (it’s only irritating when you cannot order a latte, it’s maddening or even dangerous if you cannot open doors). Some of the doors are underground where wi-fi or 4G signal doesn’t reach, so it has to work offline as well. Some companies provide ‘backup badges’ for that reason, but that very much beats the purpose of having your phone as your access control device.

Digital access control is the future, but this particular chunk of the future will arrive only slowly. It’ll be some time before we’ll be able to arrive in our car, have the parking gate recognise us and let us in, have the doors and turnstiles open as we approach them or as we tap readers with our phone (NFC works like charm on new Android phones, but Apple blocked the access to developers on older iPhones). It will, however, start being present in more and more co-workings and office buildings in 2019.

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