Companies face many unknowns as they contemplate a return to office work, but one clear theme is emerging: The post-pandemic office will be awash with data.

Startups developing workplace management tools have been scaling their offerings to prepare for the hyper-managed office of the future. The investors backing them are betting companies will increasingly rely on a new toolkit to fine-tune the office for a flexible work world.

"Everybody's rethinking their real estate needs," said Matt Murphy, a partner at Menlo Ventures. "People are going to make some assumptions. But what you really want is data."

That data is being collected directly from employees on mobile apps that survey their health, allow them to manage desk and room reservations, and help companies limit capacity. Startups are also collecting real-time data from badge swipes as well as in-office sensors that give a detailed view of how the space is being used over time.

Initially, the catalyst is all about COVID-19. Organizations need a way to get people back in offices while vaccinations remain unavailable to many. They also need to navigate a patchwork of rules that govern how offices can reopen across the US and the world, as well as future transitions that may require so-called vaccine passports.

Many real estate tech startups entered the pandemic with fresh capital to fund investment in the new normal: 2019 was a breakout year for the sector, with more than $18 billion raised across 508 deals, according to PitchBook data. Others have raised funds during the pandemic in order to address the new demands on the workplace.

Envoy, a startup known for its sign-in product for office visitors, was forced to pivot when lockdowns caused the usage of its core software to plunge. It already offered a way to book meeting rooms and managed deliveries, but the company started to think about what else employees would need.

So after raising $20 million in May 2020, Envoy launched new services like the ability to reserve desks, manage office capacity and send out health surveys to employees. Murphy, who has backed Envoy, likened the holistic approach to an operating system for the office, an idea that has been gaining traction.

OfficeTogether and Work Sphere, which both launched during the pandemic with venture capital backing, are similarly seeking a foothold in the office of the future with ways to monitor employee health and compliance with safety rules.

Health concerns have also given rise to touchless entry tech, boosting the outlook for startups like Openpath, which raised a $36 million Series C led by Greycroft last July.

But the longer-term vision is that workplace management tools will give companies the data they need to understand what role their office will play going forward.

"You have to understand how your space is being utilized," said Eddie Kang, a principal at Tola Capital. "probably don't need the same kind of space as you had before, but you have to use it better, and you have to use it smarter."

Tola has invested in Robin Powered, a platform for reserving desks and rooms as well as other workplace analytics. It has also backed VergeSense, which is using sensors to anonymously track office usage in real time.

Some businesses have made commitments to fully remote or on-site work, but most are likely to take a hybrid approach, Murphy said. They may also have different policies for different teams, he added. Companies may be more inclined to encourage sales teams to come into the office, for example, while teams of software developers could benefit from flexible or fully remote work.

Leading tech companies including Microsoft and Salesforce have signaled that they intend to pursue a hybrid model. Salesforce went as far as to cancel a lease for 325,000 square feet of office space in San Francisco.

The transition could lead to sizable savings for employers who are able to shave their real estate footprint. But with flexibility comes uncertainty. Managing a floor plan in which every person has a desk can be done with a PDF, but dynamic office space calls for flexible software.

And companies will want to tailor their real estate spending to reflect how space is actually being used, not just based on what employees say they want.

"Companies don't know who's going to come in or how many people are going to come in," said Envoy CEO Larry Gadea.

Startups like VergeSense and Density are using sensors to track how people move and gather in office spaces. They're both gathering the information anonymously to avoid the sort of security breach that afflicted Sequoia-backed security camera startup Verkada last month.

VergeSense raised $12 million in a Series B round led by Tola Capital in December. And Density raised $51 million led by Kleiner Perkins last July.

VergeSense has put its sensor technology to use during the pandemic to assign a "social distancing score," which monitors when people are within 6 feet of each other. It also keeps tabs on when areas were last cleaned and tracks high-use areas, paving the way for intelligent cleaning schedules.

In the long term, the real-time information on how people use space offers the promise of a single source of truth for companies that are debating about how much space they need. It can also be used to tweak layouts to ensure that the space they have is being used efficiently.

Nuvolo, which runs workplace management systems across a variety of industries, says sensors from companies like VergeSence can be integrated into its software. While Nuvolo offers a range of office software, the company's space management tool has become its hottest-selling product.

The proliferation of data will let companies manage space in previously unthinkable ways and help cut the fat from their real estate footprint. But even those who are bullish on the flexible future of work acknowledge that there are compelling reasons for companies to keep some physical office space.

Says Envoy CEO Gadea: "People still want community."

Featured image via Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

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