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Illustrated by WRAPPED Studios

Using Analytics to Make Buildings More Energy Efficient Is All About Trust

What takes a lot of time and effort to build and just a few choices to ruin? (Hint: This is not a climate change joke.) The answer is trust.

Trust comes from a basic survival instinct with a Darwinian twist, the strongest survive because they make good choices, and their herds faithfully follow them. In most cases, the herd trusts the leader until the leader makes a decision that revokes its power, whether it be picking the wrong fight or misjudging the distance between two cliffs. While there are no studies to support that these alpha leaders purposefully mislead their followers (with the exception of human beings), deception is undoubtedly the fastest way to break trust. 

The concept of improving the odds of survival through a group is reflected in sports teams. While there are leaders within each team (just ask Tom Brady or Megan Rapinoe), the team won’t win or survive the season without everyone doing their part. The trust players put in each other is built over hours, weeks, and months of strenuous workouts and team bonding. Everyone loves to joke about trust falls in corporate retreats, but building a healthy level of trust includes strengthening emotional connections and dependability. As teammates get to know each other on a personal level, in addition to understanding their individual athletic limits, the entire team becomes stronger as expectations are put in check and the role of each player is clear.

Trust is also on the most important factors when it comes to sales. The sales process for software, for example, is often longer than expected. When someone buys software, they’re doing it because of the software’s capabilities but also because of their relationship with the salesperson and the company that created it. Relationships are so important for software because anyone buying it needs to trust that their complaints will be met, and the product will continue to be improved long beyond when the contract is signed. Sometimes it does, and those relationships flourish. Other times end in frustration and disappointment.

In buildings, one of the most important relationships between management and tenants is around energy. Tenants have to trust that their building is doing its best to be efficient and make use of all the data that is created to do so. Managers and owners have to trust that tenants are doing their best to reduce their usage since most of a building’s energy gets consumed inside the tenant spaces. In the theme of teams, these buildings are doing their jobs to generate data, but if it is not properly used, the ball drops, and no goals will be scored, or met.

The adoption of software platforms for energy management by facilities management has been slow to start, despite the high levels of innovation. Traditional mindsets are wary of bringing on a “teammate” that assumes the role of QB, leaving the rest of the team to blindly trust that the artificial intelligence behind the software is doing what’s best. Unchecked and operating behind the scenes, building operators might question their own value. What about all of those years they’ve worked with the building? They know it better than any machine possibly could, right? Are their job responsibilities about to change? Is this AI platform going to snafu over the weekend and turn off the heat, leading to debilitating repair costs and loss of productivity?

The answer: Maybe. 

People want, no, people NEED the software to be a trusted partner, not just a computer that tells them what to do.

Real estate is an industry that has always had a bit of a black box over its energy management. The information from meter reads and utilities was, in the past, handled and used by a small number of people. But software can’t be a one-way relationship. As Mike Donovan, SVP of product at Aquicore said, “People want, no, people NEED the software to be a trusted partner, not just a computer that tells them what to do.”

The real question is how do we make these software platforms a trusted team player?

One of the most important ways is to be true to your word. The dependability of doing what you say you’re going to do starts before contracts are signed. It starts with marketing. Setting realistic expectations of what a platform can do and when results will become evident lays a strong foundation for the rest of the relationship. This is a joint effort between vision, product development, and sales. While everyone has a stake and their own priorities, none of that matters if there are no customers. And, please, avoid using buzzwords simply for the sake of using buzzwords. Accurate information and confident knowledge is how you acquire trust, not by playing hype man to an energy management platform.

The people behind good software platforms are patient and approachable. The sales rep might not be in the picture after implementation, but there should be a competent handoff to the customer success team with regular check-ins so that no one feels left behind. Word of mouth recommendations make customer procurement a breeze. New platforms can be intimidating, and if the team behind the platform responds “okay, Boomer,” to the ones using the platform, they won’t trust it. Mechanical systems aren’t always installed the way they were designed to be, idiosyncrasies are common, so believe facilities management teams when they speak based on experience. Keep the door open, and the education will never stop.

Trust comes through communication; the number one challenge in relationships, whether that be in a team, marriage, or work-related, is communication. People can see data, but they don’t always trust their comprehension of it. The true value exists in insights and recommendations, which must be clear and concise, so those making the changes, whether manually or through automated processes, know what to do and, more importantly, why to do it. Overtime, the why becomes assumed as trust builds between the people and their trusted partner, aka the platform, leading to more efficiency and less redundancy.

Unfortunately, nothing is perfect and mistakes can happen whether due to communication failures or software bugs but don’t let it take trust back to ground zero. Acknowledging mistakes and owning up to them is an important way to heal and improve. The knowledge of those who have been on the floor and manually checking systems cannot be 100% replicated by machines, the data just doesn’t exist. When errors happen like false positives, these need to be fixed without excuses from the supporting software’s customer success team. The feedback loop, whether originating from the building’s equipment or the FM teams, ensures immediate success for currently active buildings as well as future deployments in new buildings. Win win.

When Tom Brady calls plays, the mission is clear—win the game and do it through proven offensive plays. His team believes in his expertise and throws their full heart and body into his next play call. Likewise, it’s vital to remember the purpose of the platform and stay true to the mission. There is so much data, especially out of HVAC systems, that it can become overwhelming for those working with buildings and trying to make them better. People need a partner to reduce the noise, consolidate the data in a meaningful way and save time. They need reporting options and real time insights to answer pressing questions regarding performance and revenue. Also, purpose is the top priority when it comes to operations and energy efficiency. Platforms need to do what they say they will and do it well before they focus on the feng shui and color schemes of their apps. Function tops fancy.

Even though technology’s capabilities have reached impressive new heights, the public’s perception and trust of technology has taken a dirty turn. In fact, “techlash” (a combination of technology and backlash) was the runner-up for Oxford Dictionary’s 2019 word of the year. The nervousness around techlash is well deserved. From international influence on the United States’ last presidential election via social media to frighteningly realistic and potentially misleading deep fake videos, the greatest flaws of technology are in its misuse of power. The tradeoffs of using technology apps that exist to make life easier have become known as a “convenience tax,” and it comes in many forms: divulgence or leakage of confidential and identifiable information and specific to the building industry, cybersecurity attacks through HVAC systems or one of the other multitudes of access points available in smart buildings. 

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that more than 60% of global respondents believe tech companies have too much power and won’t prioritize our welfare over their profits. This lack of trust has resulted in legal action such as the banning of facial recognition technology in San Francisco and growing numbers of people living “off the grid.” Some believe it may also lead to the comeback of the flip phone, but don’t hold your breath.

Conversely, we have high mechanical trust. We know when we step on the brakes, the car will stop, and it will happen every time. This same trust applies to the mechanical systems operating buildings too, but can we do it better than we are today? This time the answer isn’t maybe, it’s yes.

What will the relationship between people and software look like? According to Reza Alaghehband, CEO at Envio Systems, “The way forward needs to be technology supporting and collaborating with on-site resources [individuals] in a user-friendly way which helps them succeed. Automation should be an active tool to increase productivity and eliminate redundant tasks, not a replacement for people.”

The energy sector and building teams are perfectly situated for some automated and AI help. Buildings use 40 percent of national energy consumption, 54 percent of natural gas, and 70 percent of overall electricity, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. As of 2018, commercial buildings spend $1.44 per square foot per year on electricity, and $0.30 per square foot per year on natural gas. Facility management and maintenance teams are often severely overworked and unable to finish to-do lists. Plus, they often don’t have the ability to analyze all of the data that buildings create, resulting in subpar outcomes that we’re all too familiar with. Add in the switch over to a younger workforce, and it’s the perfect time for a trusted platform to save the day.

Good software doesn’t stop at being software as a service. What software companies are selling now is trust as a service every time a user logs in. The trust that the platform will solve a challenge and provide true value to the users. The trust that the engineers who built it will continue to make it work without bugs or glitches. The trust that the sales team will meet the promised deliverables and the customer success teams will build and maintain strong, positive relationships with the users. Facilities managers and operational teams trust software will make them more efficient at their jobs and increase asset life while maintaining the necessary accuracy for current and future operations. Building owners trust it will decrease costs, increase revenue, and keep the building within approved operational ranges to meet green requirements. Tenants trust it will keep them comfortable, healthy, and productive.

This is a lot of pressure, and for one person or a team, it would likely be too much to handle. Fortunately, innovations like real time energy management systems, predictive maintenance practices, and AI have allowed the building industry to move beyond looking for a data line on a graph and towards demanding trustworthy platforms that provide insights and recommendations. The pressure to be data experts has been lifted from building teams who really didn’t need another responsibility anyways. The backbone of trustworthy platforms is experience, not in manuals about how things are supposed to work, but through the frustrating lessons that only experience can give. As the shift happens, facilities teams should feel relieved and empowered to do their jobs better, more efficiently and with less manual labor. 

Named “2019 Sportsperson of the Year,” Megan Rapinoe headlined a variety of articles last year as she led the US Women’s National Soccer team to a World Cup win. Megan didn’t just appear in the spotlight, she started kicking around a soccer ball at age 5 and then, many years later, publically and confidently took on controversial social topics with a loud persona. She created a lot of noise and a movement that led to the whole team feeling a renewed sense of greater purpose. This energy was contagious on and off the field. One could say Megan took her already capable and strong team and expanded it to include people behind the scenes, or behind the screens as they watched games and supported calls to action. In football, this is called the twelfth man, a term adopted by the Seattle Seahawks, but in buildings, we call this software.

Software is not a static “thing.” It lives and breathes thanks to updates, upgrades, and patches. That means that it needs to create a relationship with its users much like the relationship between people on a team. When operating as it’s designed, technology can be that the trusted partner we’ve been promised. But for that to happen, it needs to be transparent, true to its word, approachable and all of the other things that make someone trustworthy. 

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