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At WeWork, Humans Supply Data For Its "Giant Computers"

The coworking startup is using heat maps and beacons to make its real estate operating system even more efficient.

At WeWork, Humans Supply Data For Its "Giant Computers"

[Photo: courtesy of WeWork]

In the office of the future, heat maps will facilitate employee interactions, and conference rooms will talk to you. At least if you're a member of WeWork.

The hipster coworking company has long thought of itself as an operating system for real estate, rather than simply a place to rent a desk. And WeWork offered a glimpse at how it's using technological insights to transform its offices during the first-ever "product innovation roundtable" at its Times Square location yesterday.

Constant throughout the presentation was the notion of a building as a living, breathing thing, ripe with data that can help guide WeWork’s business. "Buildings are literally becoming giant computers," said Joshua Emig, head of product research.

WeWork, which rents office space from real estate companies then gives it a startup-like makeover and subleases it to other companies and mobile workers at a profit, has grown significantly since it was founded six years ago—it is currently in 110 locations and has 60,000 members. But the company's $16 billion valuation has become increasingly scrutinized for being more akin to that of a tech company than a real estate venture. And its effort to expand into dormlike "WeLive" coliving spaces appears to be faltering.

Which helps explain why WeWork is investing in data: It's as much about cutting costs as improving the experience of its members. The company said it has started using machine learning, for example, to become more efficient in tracking how frequently a location’s meeting rooms are used. That helps predict how many conference rooms will be needed for a new location.

[Photo: Design Helm Los Angeles, courtesy of WeWork]

"Space in a WeWork building is at a premium," says Daniel Davis, director of cities and and spaces research. "We can’t add any square footage, so we have to make really careful decisions about how many offices you put on a floor, how many meeting rooms you put on a floor, how many phone booths and lounges."

The sixth floor of WeWork's offices in Times Square, which serves as a "beta floor" for testing new technologies, includes a computer vision system that generates heat maps highlighting the places that its members use the most often. In the future, an executive says, the company could use this data to create areas of "intentional congestion" that would encourage WeWorkers to interact with each other.

WeWork is also experimenting with pressure and temperature sensors—in one undisclosed pilot location, members can interact directly with the A/C controls—as well as beacons that can target individuals when they walk into a room. When a new WeWork member enters a conference room, for instance, the software would send a notification to her phone letting her know if it was available or booked—and where to find the next free room. The beacon tech might also send a reminder to a member to pick up his mail before leaving.

"We want to free up savings to invest in the pulmonary system of the building," says David Fano, WeWork’s chief product officer.

The research team says it doesn’t have a timeline for rolling these features out to the rest of its locations.

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