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Why Wayfinding Should Be a Priority for Office Owners and Developers

The rise of hybrid work and flex space has led to many changes in how offices look, feel, and function. Developers and architects have adapted to the new ways of working that many companies have developed, and the office building as we know it will likely never be quite the same as it was pre-pandemic. These changes are putting more importance on how workers navigate buildings and office campuses, a concept known as wayfinding. 

Wayfinding is an essential aspect of large areas and has been a staple of malls, airports, and other public spaces for decades. It can take the form of something as unassuming as a static map but is increasingly done with digital displays or through a map feature of a mobile device. In an office setting, wayfinding can mean more than just a tenant roster or signs indicating where the bathrooms are. Owners and developers of buildings, both large and small, are beefing up wayfinding tools to help office workers find their way while making a branding statement.

Taking cues 

“It’s an amenity but I don’t think people think about it like that,” Kristin Mueller, COO of Property Management at JLL, said about wayfinding. While wayfinding may be everywhere, that doesn’t mean it’s always done right. To truly be effective, it needs to not just provide navigation; it needs to be welcoming and communicate a building’s (or a company’s) brand. 

The pandemic led some in the real estate industry to call for a rethinking of wayfinding design. Safety and avoiding anxiety associated with being in close quarters with others became a focus. As workers slowly started to return to the office, it led to more signage in and around offices on cleaning and social distancing.

The pandemic permanently altered how people work. Now, most major commercial brokerage firms expect 30 percent of all office space to become flex space in the coming years, meaning a lot of first-time users at office buildings will need help getting around. “As a sector, I think we’ve done what we thought was necessary, but we should plan for it to be even more critical to using buildings in the future,” Mueller said. 

For developers or owners planning a wayfinding strategy for an office property, looking at places with projects that have successfully done it is probably a good place to start. Master-planned communities provide a good example of how to use signage effectively. Signage for many large community living facilities is created entirely from scratch, implemented programmatically, and updated regularly. 

Static maps and guides certainly have their place, but screens, whether interactive and touchscreen or static, can be very effective as part of a wayfinding strategy. Wayfinding signage has also been used on traditional billboards on the side of major thoroughfares. A few years ago, McDonald’s made waves when it rolled out a series of minimalist billboards that featured the fast-food chain’s red and yellow colors and an abstract view of its famous golden arches, overlaid with simple directions like “next exit” or “on your left,” and even “just missed us.” It was a crossover strategy that promoted their brand while also navigating potential customers to their location. 

In exploring wayfinding for an office property, owners need to approach the concept as part of an overall strategy that connects branding, communication, and navigation. Design elements like colors, fonts, and symbols should be consistent throughout every wayfinding component, with the goal of leaving a positive impression of the space on building visitors. On a more practical basis, digital wayfinding tools can provide helpful transit and weather information for office workers to help them better plan their day. Elevators are a popular spot for screens with up-to-date info on current weather conditions, train times, and news updates. For buildings close to airports, they can even offer insight into how the airlines are running. 

Welcoming new tenants to a building and advertising an on-site event is also being used more in buildings, Mueller said, especially as more buildings are launching their own building apps for tenants. More than a navigation tool, wayfinding can also offer a chance for an additional income stream. Wayfinding advertising is something that’s been done in retail for decades, as well as in public transit. Train stations, buses, elevators—anywhere that generates high levels of traffic means more eyeballs on a building. While it may not work for every office building, it could be worth exploring.

Next level mapping

As wayfinding becomes more important for buildings experiencing a new flow of hybrid and flex workers, the tech behind wayfinding tools is getting more advanced. Will Isley is the CTO of Services Products R&D Center at Esri, a Redlands, California-based software company that creates mapping and spatial analytics software. The company is a GIS mapping firm that is working on indoor mapping. Some of the latest features wayfinding tools can offer could be particularly useful for office workers in hybrid and flex settings. One tool lets building users share their location as well as receive others’ locations on their smartphones so they can easily find them within a building. It’s part of what’s called IPS, or Indoor Positioning System. It’s essentially a GPS system, but indoors. IPS was created since GPS often doesn’t work properly or at all in buildings due to the walls blocking devices like cell phones from connecting to satellites. “Traditionally, it was used in retail and airports to find a gate and at baggage claim,” said Isley of wayfinding. “Now, in the digital age, cell phones are making it more accessible to find your way around indoors.”

When a building owner or developer puts in an IPS system in a building, it allows mobile apps to know the precise location of a visitor or worker, so navigating them from point A to point B becomes easier. Big retail brands like Target and Lowes are using in-house apps that connect to built-out IPS systems to help visitors navigate their stores. In building out the systems, both companies had the IPS integrated into their lighting systems, which pulsates at a rate that cameras can read and know where a person is to the centimeter. “It’s pretty expensive,” Isley said of systems like these. “But for a company that’s building already has to have lighting and has to consider routine maintenance, it actually isn’t so bad.” 

Indoor mapping systems are especially helpful in large corporate office campuses, where finding one’s way around can be particularly challenging for new visitors. One example is ExxonMobil’s massive campus north of Houston, Texas. Built in 2014, the office campus houses a total of 9.6 million square feet across 385 acres, including 30 office buildings. The massive property is built to support 10,000 workers who need to be able to navigate through the development’s myriad buildings. Using an IPS, the company is able to provide workers and visitors with geospatial maps with important information that is updated in real-time. Programs like these can be especially useful for maintenance workers who need to find a specific component to service. Knowing exactly where something is located can save time and money and, in some cases, keep workers safer. It also becomes critical for health emergencies when someone needs to find the location of a first aid kit or a defibrillator. 

Finding your way around inside a building can be a trial-and-error situation, even with wayfinding signage. But the latest augmented reality technology can essentially direct users through a space as they walk, offering a guided tour from the palm of their hand. Augmented reality is currently being used by some larger retail companies as part of an IPS system, but it  could work for office buildings too. The interactive technology can overlay directional arrows onto a user’s cell phone that can lead someone in real time around a building with precise location accuracy. 

Some augmented reality software developers are experimenting with detecting where walls and objects are in real-time by using the phones of workers or visitors in a building. With outdoor mapping programs like Google Maps and Waze, simply driving around with the app open on a cell phone can easily collect vast amounts of data. When it comes to indoor mapping, there aren’t similar programs that have thoroughly mapped spaces that are updated on a regular basis. But new experimentation within AR is exploring the same concept of outdoor mapping using office workers just walking around a building. Software developers can gather information about the layout and components of a space and basically create a digital twin just by using the cell phones of someone going about their day and walking around. “That’s a cutting edge thing people are looking at: how can we crowdsource where things are by using people and phones and help organizations build digital twins and keep it up to date,” Isley said. However, this brings up privacy concerns over accessing data from personal devices. At least from his own research into the concept, Isley said data would only come from those who agreed to a privacy policy and in a corporate office context where workers needed to use the phones for their jobs.

With more reasons than ever now to expand wayfinding options in office buildings, office owners and developers ought to look closely at options that could best serve their particular needs. There are a growing number of companies, both in the digital mapping and digital screen space, and a lot of options for buildings (both big and small) to choose from. The industry is well aware now of the flight-to-quality trend among office tenants, and effective wayfinding tools, whether simple or cutting-edge, look to be a necessary amenity for office buildings going forward.

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