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A return to the office will require smarter buildings

smart home
(Image credit: Photo Credit: bergserg/ Shutterstock)

It’s now a year since the national lockdown across the UK commenced and although the vaccine rollout offers great hope, the government’s scientific advisors continue to warn us that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. We’re told that we can expect a third wave of the virus to hit towards the end of the summer or early autumn. 

While we’ve seen a remarkable adjustment to the way we work over the past year with the widespread and successful adoption of remote working, made possible through ubiquitous broadband access and various work and video conferencing platforms, it would be a mistake to think we’ve seen the decline of the physical office.

While some business leaders have indicated a willingness to offer 100 percent remote work as an option moving forward, others, particularly in sectors such as finance and banking, are advocating for a return to the office at the earliest possible opportunity. 

What’s most likely is that over the coming months, we’re going to see the emergence of hybrid models, with a mix of remote working and physical attendance at workplaces.

Broadly, business owners have come to the conclusion that offices will have to change dramatically if their teams are to be able to work safely. For many, speculation about the end of the office, and a future of widespread remote working, was replaced at the end of the first lockdown with a newfound appreciation of the joy and the utility of working with others in a shared environment. We’re likely to see the same attitudes re-emerge in the coming months, as the third lockdown ends. 

So far, almost all the discussion around the evolution of the office has pertained to its design or managing the flow of people in and out of buildings. And this is important: there’s no doubt that physical distancing is an effective way to slow the spread of the virus, that educating employees on what they should and shouldn’t do is paramount, and that controlling the number of people in a confined space at any one time is necessary. But in order truly to address the problem of returning to the office safely, we need to start thinking about the role that ‘smart’ buildings can play, both in facilitating the changes already suggested and in overcoming physical limitations to keeping people safe at work.

IoT's central role

Fortunately, a building does not have to be smart from the outset. It can be retrofitted with smart technology from within. And that means that in almost any office building, hands-free technology that keeps surfaces virus-free—an obvious place to start—can be installed. Voice assistants, for instance, can be used to perform a wide variety of tasks that would otherwise have to be done manually from afar. Facial recognition tech allows building owners and bosses to keep buildings, offices, lifts, and rooms secure while also allowing people to exit and enter.

IoT has a central role to play in smart buildings. Sensors, for instance, give building managers real-time footfall data so they can make better decisions about how a property functions and minimize contact between its occupants. With IoT, building managers could also optimize air quality or read surface body temperature. Lights and other fixtures and utilities can turn themselves on or off depending on motion and occupancy, saving power at a time when businesses are looking to cut costs and the climate emergency grows increasingly urgent.

Now is the time for employers, building and facilities managers to start thinking about the role that IoT solutions could play in successfully facilitating a return to the office. One pressing issue that will need to be addressed is compliance with Covid-19 requirements or guidelines for the density of people in workplaces. IoT is ideally suited to this task. Sensors can be fitted to elevators and escalators to measure the occupancy of an entire building or individual floors at any given time. This capability can be supplemented with occupancy analytics that allows the measurement of people in specific areas of a building and sounding an alert when the maximum number is exceeded. 

Additionally, workplace apps that help manage employee movement throughout offices and track the utilization of the building as a whole, or specific areas can be introduced

More threats lurking

Covid-19 has already driven technology development even in traditionally conservative sectors. Some have likened the possible changes the virus might inspire to the transformation of airport security after 9/11: the new technology may seem awkward at first, but it will improve quickly. We can cautiously anticipate that there may be a greater interest in augmented reality and digital whiteboards within offices, and a range of apps are likely to appear. The winners will be those who can make using the smart technology in a given building or office as intuitive as using a laptop.

In order to guarantee a transition back to the office that is as seamless as possible, however, we need to start implementing these forms of technology now. But we can perhaps be even bolder. It would be naive to think that Covid is the last threat the office space will face, or that flexibility as such within a building is not valuable. Smart technology enables this. The long-term success and indeed survival of the business world, therefore, may depend on embracing smart technology, not just to guarantee the health of those working but to change with the times, and to maximize productivity and comfort in a volatile commercial world.

Tom Harmsworth, Managing Director UK, WeMaintain

Tom Harmsworth is Managing Director UK at WeMaintain.