Health concerns, lockdowns, and stay-at-home orders have challenged all organizations in the last 8-months. Some foresaw the length of the crisis and opted for long-term or permanent remote work policies, but the majority of businesses have been left riding the waves of office-return when supported by public health policy and in hope that it might be the last time.
The reality, however, is that the pandemic will continue through winter and into spring, at least, and companies will continue to bring employees back when possible — the key to surfing those inevitable future waves of office-return gracefully is flexibility.
For buildings, flexibility comes from visibility and intelligence. Only by knowing what is happening in a building can smart systems respond to changes, so during times of uncertainty buildings should develop their sensory infrastructure. Motion detectors, people counting cameras, and even carbon dioxide monitors can all help buildings better determine occupancy levels, allowing the processed data to trigger the necessary efficiency changes across the facility. As we continue with a hotch-potch of remote work, office-returns, and flexible policies, the prevailing building automation systems (BAS) simply cannot maintain good efficiency levels.
“BAS alerts are simply not good enough – a smart analytics platform needs to tell you exactly what the issue is, diagnose the issue, and provide clear recommendations to resolve the issue.,” state Jessica Wilson and Derek John Mullassery of the Energy Management Association. “For example, it is one thing to say that the discharge air temperature (DAT) of an air handling unit (AHU) is above the high-limit setpoint. While BAS alerts can generate that level of information, smart analytics platforms will be able to pinpoint exactly why the DAT is above the setpoint, how often it has happened in the past, the cost and comfort impact associated with the issue. More importantly, an alert won’t provide clear steps on how the issue can be resolved.”
Pre-COVID building could get away with a one-size-fits-all approach to building efficiency because most would know approximately how many people to expect in the building on any given day. Furthermore, simply planning for full-occupancy didn’t result in the same scale of inefficiency because most active-buildings were mostly full, most of the time. Over the past 6-months, however, the occupancy level of buildings has been determined by national/regional public health regulation and enterprise remote work strategies, both commonly subject to frequent change. The only certainty has been in times of full-lockdown and 100% remote work schemes, which have highlighted our inability to power-down a building completely.
We have all seen the tape on the floor telling us where we can stand and move, we have noticed the conspicuous extra space between desks and chairs, and the awkward interactions between people as they learn how to navigate this new world.
It may be temporary but it feels like forever, and just as the office evolved for efficiency and functionality before the pandemic, today’s offices must also find a way to strive for the same goals in this extended phase of uncertainty. As public health and employee policies adapt to meet the changing demands of the crisis, the only way to maintain an efficient and functional office is to remain flexible. And, In office design, flexible means open.
While open-plan offices were designed for collaboration they are also much easier to clean and allow a greater range of desk configurations to match health policies as they change. Fewer doorways mean fewer door handles, a key surface for infection, while also reducing the bottlenecking of people as they move around the space. Big shared tables may only provide a workspace for half the number of employees but are better for socially distanced collaboration than the same employees sitting at detached desks, cubicles, or in small walled offices. Transparent dividers show a logical potential but dehumanize the space between people and remind us of biological dangers, reducing trust and collaboration much more than additional space does. The most important element, however, is good communication.
“Communication is a critical piece to managing the COVID-19 pandemic,” suggest Wilson and Mullasseryof. “Showing your building occupants and other stakeholders that you care about the health and safety of your occupants, and are taking measures to track and monitor their air quality while they are in your building will go a long way to build confidence. Perhaps one day, signs showing indoor air quality compliance will be just as normal (or even expected) as the cleaning schedules posted in public bathrooms.”
The ultimate form of flexibility is the flexibility of the workers themselves. Flexible work trends have been growing over the past decade allowing employers to explore the cost and productivity benefits of allowing more work to take place outside the physical office. During the crisis, people have been forced to work-from-home, asked to return to the office, promised suburban hub offices, and most have no idea what the future of their workplace looks like. As the pandemic continues, so will the fluctuations of social distancing rules, making the flexible worker more important than ever.
Pre-COVID dreams of flexible work meaning that employees can drift in and out of the office on a cloud of productivity that facilitates work wherever they are will need to be reigned in, at least in this time of reduced occupancy levels and social distancing. However, the true power of flexible work during the pandemic is the increased ability of workers to be productive at home or in the office, so whatever fears and regulations the crisis presents a flexible worker can keep working.
For companies around the world trying to survive and thrive during these on-going uncertain times, increasing flexibility is really the only approach that ensures business continuity and provides the best chance of success.