The New Normal: Can Smart Buildings Create A Safer Workplace?

Real Estate

As businesses re-open and others continue their preparation to welcome employees back to the workplace, the open-plan office suddenly looks more risky than revolutionary. The ability to network while hot desking, learn by listening and brainstorm at the water cooler has turned from benefit to liability practically overnight. Today, employers have many considerations ranging from who should get priority access to the workplace, to the use of titanium door handles and infrared lights to kill off germs.  

Employees have their own anxieties: 39 per cent of UK workers are concerned about their ability to socially distance from colleagues. What’s undeniable – workplaces need to become smarter and more flexible to cater to the realities of the new normal.  

With the help of modern technology, we can make office spaces safer, more comfortable, more profitable and ultimately more sustainable.  Businesses can ensure staff are rewarded with quality time in the office when they spend time commuting – while reducing costs and safeguarding the planet in the process. 

Recycled air: Good for our health bad for our planet  

Just a few months ago, most people’s only concern with air conditioning systems was the temperature they were programmed to achieve. Now they are a matter of employee safety. Does your ventilation system help dissipate and reduce the risk of transmitting a virus or exacerbate it?

The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) has issued new guidelines for building managers, effectively putting a stop to the use of recirculated air to limit infection transmission inside buildings. Office ventilation systems should be running round the clock, CIBSE advised, even in buildings that are temporarily unoccupied. Designed to improve workers’ health and wellbeing, the new guidelines may have the opposite effect when it comes to the health of the planet. Not to mention negative cost side effects for many businesses.  

The impact of social distancing measures has wider ramifications for energy consumption in buildings. A greatly reduced number of people can occupy buildings, yet in most cases no adjustment will be made to switch lights off in unoccupied areas, adjust heating systems to reflect fewer bodies in the office, and maintenance (including cleaning) has been increased.  

For office systems dependant on a manual switch, running everything all the time could become a default setting.  

Buildings are already the planet’s biggest consumers of energy, and the most inefficient. As a society with zero net carbon ambitions, we could rapidly find ourselves in a situation where commercial and public buildings have less than 30% occupancy but consume as much or even more energy than before. With another 70% of the population at home, we are already seeing a significant rise in individual household energy consumption. And this is set to continue. Residential electricity consumption was already predicted to overtake industry in the next 30 years (before lock-down increased remote working) thanks to electric vehicle charging and the expected transition to electric heating.  

Getting business priorities right 

Do we even need to maintain expensive and potentially redundant office spaces many will ask? With a number of high-profile businesses already encouraging homeworking for the rest of the year, it’s tempting to hail the demise of the office. Especially in light of the environmental ‘dividend’ we’ve witnessed during the early days of lockdown, with air pollution and CO2 levels going down as fewer people had to commute. 

Yet, the newest data suggests that remote working is not for everyone. Research found 71% of us are struggling to adjust to remote work, 65% say maintaining employee morale has been a challenge, and more than a third are facing difficulties with company culture.  

Employers can’t ignore these findings. Talent is the single biggest cost for most businesses and attracting and retaining the right candidates is challenging. Workplace environment, well-being, flexible working, brand image including sustainability credentials are all increasingly important to employees.  

 Office of the future 

If office spaces are here to stay, how do we ensure built environments work for people, planet and profit? As companies decide whether to downsize their office space in favour of more flexible working, optimising office space will be more important than ever.  

Data and the latest technology hold the key. We must create a smarter workplace with joined up systems allowing us to monitor and automate key processes, including staff seating arrangements based on capacity and occupancy levels, and ensure smart heating, ventilation and lighting provide health benefits and comfort, while reducing the energy bill and helping protect the environment.  

The technology exists today in the form of sensors, IoT, building management systems and software that can measure and monitor air quality, noise and comfort levels, including checking for odd smells and pockets of hot/cool temperature. Moreover, lighting, and heating systems can be controlled and managed remotely in real-time to create the optimum safe, productive and comfortable work environment.  

Modern office management technology can ensure that social distancing is maintained by ensuring employees are located appropriately in agreed zones (enabling lighting/heating etc. to be switched off or reduced in areas that aren’t occupied). It can determine the best office flows to minimise unnecessary contact and ensure these are being followed. Flag vacated desks and occupied areas for cleaning as soon as they are vacated (directing cleaning to the relevant areas instead of cleaning everything all the time) and fresh air can be pumped during the hours required or when levels drop below a certain point.  Creating a self, healthy, comfortable work environment creates a more enjoyable and productive workplace and is proven to increase staff retention.   

What about profit? Property owners can already command greater value from spaces that have lower carbon emissions and higher levels of comfort. For the businesses occupying these buildings smart buildings offer a 10x return on investment. Lower energy bills, reduced maintenance costs and increased staff retention all directly improve the bottom line.  

As restrictions lift, the main challenge we face is rebuilding confidence. Without it efforts to jump-start economic growth and boost productivity will falter. Smarter buildings are key to creating healthier, more productive workplaces, improving profitability and protecting the planet.

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