Office workers have become comfortable at home. After being forced to work from home for much of the last 12-months, the long-awaited return to the office (whenever it comes) will now represents change and with change comes fear. Just as the end of the pandemic will not be a specific date, the return to the office will not be as simple as opening the doors of the building and expecting everything to be normal. Employees will be reluctant, being around colleagues will feel strange, while health and safety will continue to create concern. Employers will have to find innovative ways to alleviate fears to help their employees feel comfortable in the workplace again, and smart building technology may provide the answer.
“The global pandemic has shaken up the entire world and fundamentally disrupted our daily work and life. Home offices have become the new normal as a radical measure to curb the spread of COVID 19,” reads an article by BehrTech, an industrial and commercial wireless IoT connectivity solution provider. “Yet, as office and retail buildings start to reopen following the lockdowns, property owners and corporate tenants are forced to rethink the way buildings are operated. Above all, delivering peace-of-mind and confidence to employees and visitors alike is a top priority.”
Only one in eight people would like to work from home full-time after the pandemic is over, according to the 2020 US work-from-home survey by Gensler. Most want to spend the majority of their normal workweek at the office, while maintaining the ability to work from home for part of the week, and over a quarter of the workforce is still undecided the study concluded. Notably, the research showed that the quality of the work environment has a direct correlation with the willingness to return. On average, the more satisfied a respondent was with their prior work environment, the fewer days they want to work from home in the future, Gensler reported.
“As much as people yearn to come back to their workplaces or start going shopping again, they are faced with the vast unknown of the current reality. Are building areas sanitized as frequently as needed? Is indoor air quality optimized? How can [social] distancing be guaranteed?,” the BehrTech article continued. “These are just a few out of numerous questions many are pondering. As companies begin to put in place reopening plans, they are tasked with a difficult mission – restoring trust and confidence in the built environment for every individual user.”
This is where smart technology can offer solutions. Occupancy sensing and analytics, for example, can track the movement of people, or more specifically dwell time and gathering hotspots, to identify social distancing issues. Occupancy technology can also identify where people have been to better direct on-demand cleaning processes that can sanitize areas between visits in order to limit the spread of infection. Meanwhile, air quality sensors linked to smart ventilation control can identify and resolve poor air quality in specific indoor spaces, which has shown to have direct links to virus transmission.
Beyond sensory networks, access control systems have also demonstrated their potential in the fight against COVID within the commercial real estate environment. Contactless “street to desk” technology is also being introduced to limit interaction with surfaces as occupants and visitors pass through doorways, turnstiles, and elevators. In the case of an outbreak, access control systems can also identify who was in the building at any given time, in order to track and test those that may have been exposed.
While all these applications provide support in the battle against virus transmission, they do not necessarily alleviate fear and make employees feel more comfortable in the workplace. For that, building owners and operators need to do more to present the information provided by smart systems. Smartphone apps can link directly to sensory data to show occupants which areas of the building are most densely populated, so they can then act on that information to move to less-populated and therefore safer parts of the structure. These apps can also link to cleaning data, allowing workers to select workspaces, meeting rooms, and facilities that have been sanitized since their last use.
Even air quality data can be visualized on screens to give occupants insight into the areas of the building that they should avoid and give them peace-of-mind that the area they are working in is safe. “We feel like indoor air quality measurements are the types of measurements that will be displayed everywhere in commercial property going forward, just the same way we look at the weather,” said Julie Goudie, communications manager at Sterling Bay, a major property developer in the Chicago area. While smart technology can limit the spread of infection, it will be innovative ways of presenting data to occupants that alleviate fears and create occupant comfort.
“Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the focus on tenant comfort and wellbeing had taken the spotlight in the commercial real estate sector in recent years. Realizing that people are the greatest asset in the built environment, companies and owners have turned to IoT and smart building technology to enable a healthy, comfortable and engaging environment,” the BehrTech article adds. “Now, the pandemic is rapidly expediting this trend on a global scale.”