By now, we’re all tired of hearing about how Covid-19 has shaken up the economy and workforce, sending many traditional nine-to-fivers to work remotely from home. Now, though, it’s time to start looking at how the work environment will function as the pandemic fades (fingers crossed). Remember the office building? Conversations around the water cooler? In-person meetings in conference rooms? While it is unlikely things will ever return to exactly how they were before, there will be rafts of workers returning to those buildings that have sat empty for the past 12 months. Though many never think about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into keeping buildings functioning and safe, the return to the workplace puts one particular role in the hot seat—the facility manager. While before the pandemic, many buildings were dipping their toes into a more connected building model—wherein the tasks required for building upkeep and maintenance are automated for efficiency and savings—this digital transformation is more crucial now than ever.
One of the connected building space leaders is Honeywell, whose name you may recognize for its controls and hardware expertise. However, that barely scratches the surface of Honeywell’s purview today. Not too long ago, I interviewed David Trice, Honeywell’s Chief Product Officer, who previously led Honeywell’s Connected Building business, on Honeywell’s strategy and outlook in the connected building space. This week, I had the opportunity to interview Honeywell’s new GM of Connected Buildings, Usman K. Shuja, who is in the process of taking over for David Trice. Today, I’d like to profile Shuja and share some of my gatherings from our conversation.
An experienced hand
Shuja is not new to Honeywell—he’s currently transitioning from his role as Chief Commercial Officer for Honeywell’s Connected Enterprise (the company’s software business) into Connected Buildings’ GM role. Shuja brings valuable experience as the GM of an AI startup he helped launch in 2013, called SparkCognition, based out of Austin, TX. While Honeywell presents a more extensive charge than SparkCognition’s 300 employees, Shuja says he is looking forward to the challenge. I will say that Shuja’s entrepreneurial experience automatically gains my respect. I was employee number 154 at Alta Vista in the late nineties, which lost out to Google after burning through $2M in cash. It was a disheartening, albeit highly educational, experience, and I admire any entrepreneur who could weather the storm.
One of Shuja’s first investors at SparkCognition was none other than Michael Dell of Dell Technologies, where Shuja also spent time before coming to Honeywell. Between attending the University of Texas, founding SparkCognition and working for Dell, Shuja spent about 20 years in the tech hub of Austin, TX, only recently relocating.
Where does the Connected Building go from here?
My first big question for Shuja was what he perceives to be the primary decelerators (and, for that matter, accelerators) affecting the Connected Building’s rate of growth. He responded by noting that while Covid-19 has “put a little bit of a twist” in the business, it has also significantly accelerated aspects of it.
He led off with the accelerators. The number one question facility managers are grappling with, according to Shuja, is how they can bring employees and occupants back to these empty buildings and how the post-pandemic work model will look. There are different schools of thought on this, ranging from bringing the entire workforce back to maintaining a predominately remote workforce to adopting a hybrid model that blends the two. To make these critical calls, building managers need data-driven insights—the occupant experience, how much businesses are spending on their portfolio, how much they’re spending on energy and more.
In Shuja’s telling of it, the second accelerator is the desire for facility managers to be able to manage their buildings remotely—”from the coffee shop,” if you will. Between this and the drive to get employees back into the office, Shuja believes there will be a boom in connected building software development, all with the overarching mission of getting as many occupants and employees back into these facilities as is possible.
A third accelerator that I would add to Shuja’s picture lies in CEOs’ desire to utilize their space better now—not just as things move forward. For example, maybe half of an organization’s workforce works from home and wishes to continue doing so, while the other half are willing to get back to the office. I believe more resources should be devoted to efficiently using these spaces—businesses should consider employing options like shared desks and huddle rooms. While this may ultimately result in a decrease in square footage, I believe it could potentially even out for Honeywell, given that facilities will need to spend more than they usually would to manage these spaces. Shuja echoed that, saying, “the overall use of real estate…. might go down, but the software spend will go up.”
The main decelerator Shuja cited was that all the data needed to guide these decisions lives in many different places. Relevant data includes energy data from sensors, contract information (located in software such as SAP) and occupant data on who is coming and going and what sort of experience they’re having in the workplace—all situated in different silos. And, of course, the locations where this data lives may vary from facility to facility, making matters all that much more difficult. Honeywell wishes to unify this data into one central location that would allow organizations to make the informed decisions they need to navigate the post-Covid world.
One of the biggest challenges to unifying this data, according to Shuja, is getting IT to talk with OT. While the IT side of things is relatively standardized, OT is a different story—businesses utilize all sorts of different pieces, different protocols and different OEMs. Honeywell Forge, which is inspired by industry leading Niagara framework, seeks to solve this issue by creating an overarching layer, on top that can normalize this data and create a data model capable of being extended across OT, regardless of the underlying technology.
I asked Shuja what was admittedly a layup of a question—what is it that makes Honeywell good at connected buildings? He cited Honeywell’s wealth of domain expertise given the ten million commercial buildings that already employ some element of Honeywell’s portfolio. However, according to Shuja, a unique differentiator is the open nature of Honeywell’s Niagra and Forge software. An open platform enables the easy deployment of OT technologies, which are notoriously difficult to put in place with proprietary systems. Second, Shuja emphasized Honeywell’s commitment to safety, driven by occupant experience data. He believes, and I agree, that if you improve your building occupants’ safety, you’ll be rewarded with a pole position in the sector.
Shuja clearly understands the future challenges facing the connected building sector and the opportunities for Honeywell that come along with it, and I came away from our interview confident in his abilities to steer the ship. It’s a dynamic time for the global economy and workforce, requiring businesses to pivot quickly and wisely. Honeywell has the software tools to help enterprises to make informed, data-based decisions on what their operations will look like as the world returns to “normal.”
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.