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All my life, I’d dreamt of moving to a city. Never did I imagine that dream would first come true in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

While the comedic irony of this does not escape me, walking through the mostly empty streets of Boston, its retail shop windows plastered with varying forms of “WE’RE OPEN” signs that beg for my business, leaves me to wonder: What will everyday activities — like shopping and eating — look like in a post-COVID world?

With major brands like Brooks Brothers, J.C. Penney, and J. Crew filing for bankruptcy, retail stores need to figure out how to get people back through the door. To do this, they must rebuild trust — but how will they do that at a fast pace on such a large scale?

According to ZoomInfo data, it looks like the answer could be new facilities — specifically smart buildings — which may have unintended effects on the trust of consumers, not all of them positive.

These industries are actively researching facilities management:

When we think of what it means to go ‘back to normal,’ fully open and functioning businesses come to mind. Restaurants, clothing stores, and universities are part of everyday life for most of us, which is why it’s no surprise that these industries rank high among those that are currently researching how to reopen.

According to our data, which tracks when companies are consuming an above-average amount of content on specific topics, here are the top five industries conducting online research on facilities management and safety projects:

  1. Car manufacturing
  2. Retail clothing stores
  3. Department stores
  4. Universities
  5. Food manufacturing
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Figure 1: A representation of what various industries are currently researching online. The timing of recent spikes — notably March, April and July — strongly suggest that they are COVID-related.

More specifically, July saw double-digit percentage increases in topics such as “smart buildings” and “building management systems.” Is this a clue as to how everyday activities, like shopping and eating, will be reimagined in the near future?

What are smart buildings, and how can they help?

A smart building is just a building that collects data and makes automatic adjustments based on that data. (Think air conditioning, for example.) Sounds normal, right?

Not necessarily. A smart building does not just control HVAC systems — it also integrates them, along with all other internal systems (lighting, security, power, etc.) so that the data it’s recording and responding to is being fed through one unified source (sort of like a brain).

As freaky as this sounds (and you cannot convince me otherwise), these buildings could, in a post-COVID world, keep track of:

  • The number of occupants in a building, which could help us stick to safety guidelines.
  • The energy demands of any given section of a building (ex: lights in an unoccupied room would shut off), which could help businesses conserve energy and drastically lower costs.
  • Body temperature of occupants with thermal cameras, which could help us detect fevers.

These capabilities could be crucial in regaining consumers’ trust as things begin to slowly transition from behind the screen to in-person. At the same time, the implications of these advancements could break that trust just as easily.

In 2016, the UK Telegraph installed devices underneath desks that used heat and motion sensors to detect whether or not employees were there. The aim of this was to gather information on possible improvements in space efficiency, and the data collected by the devices was anonymous. Still, employees felt so violated that the devices were removed the very next day.

The article also covers an opt-in trial done by Bank of America in which employees were asked to wear “smart badges,” which sent data to their managers about where they were in the building, how often they spoke, and the duration of their interactions with one another. Again, the data was collected anonymously — but it was collected nonetheless.

In this sense, smart buildings offer a bit of a trade-off for customers: safer, more efficient buildings in exchange for more of their data.

What will smart buildings do to customers’ trust in the brands they like?

It’s no question that smart buildings offer major benefits in reopening businesses after COVID. It may even be one of the only methods of getting people comfortable enough to walk back through the doors of their favorite clothing stores again. But what will it do to their trust long-term?

In a recent article, Matthew Marson, Global Lead of Smart Places — a company that actually sells smart building services — admits that, in spite of their major benefits, “There is still something a bit creepy about it.” Saliently, he inquires, “If we’re going to introduce location services, how do we make people feel comfortable that they’re not being watched on the loo?”

It’s true that if, in a few months, I decide I want to go shoe-shopping at Nordstrom, I’ll certainly feel safer knowing smart services have been installed. At the same time, though, my apprehension might motivate me to just keep on doing what quarantine has already conditioned me to do so well:

I’ll just buy it online.


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About the author

Stephanie Tonneson

Stephanie Tonneson is a Content Marketing Coordinator at ZoomInfo, the leading B2B contact database and sales intelligence solution for go-to-market teams.

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