This time last year, medical professionals in Wuhan, China, began to report cases of a “viral pneumonia of unknown cause” and the rest, as they say, is history. By March a global pandemic had been announced by the WHO and much of Europe and North America had been engulfed by the coronavirus, triggering lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Virtually overnight our business districts emptied as mass remote working began, the summer offered a temporary return to the office for some but as temperatures dropped cases rose, sending employees home again. Nearly every company in Europe, North America, and many other regions have experienced some form of this journey, including workplace design firms and solution providers.
One such company, HB Reavis, employs a range of different monitoring and mapping technologies in their London and Bratislava offices. The analytics provided by their smart workplace platform, Symbiosy, provides an insight into the life of an office in 2020, to show how we could better adapt our offices during the crisis and the years of caution to follow. Symbiosy enables data-driven workplace analytics for the occupier, rather than just the building owners and facility managers. So, the data not only helped HB Reavis control office density and abide by public health regulation, but it also helped the occupants feel safer and more comfortable.
“The results combine data from our smart workplace platform, along with Microsoft analytics to understand how employees work both at home and then in the office – providing useful insight when considering methods of working and how to best use office space while keeping everyone safe,” says Gilbert Lennox-King, European commercial director for HB Reavis. “On return to the office, tech such as occupation and density information enables employees to see in real-time that their environment is not only safe to work in, but is conducive to the type of work they want to achieve. They can book empty, clean meeting rooms, and can see whether the teams they want to collaborate with are present.”
Providing data to the occupants themselves appears to be a key theme to the solutions being provided. This shows that virus safety and compliance are only part of the challenge, companies will also have to work hard to encourage their staff to come back and help them feel safe in order to avoid dips in productivity. The platform provides a live read-out of office capacity and flags densely populated zones on a mobile app and in-office display screens. And, if the virus is introduced to the office, they rely on a Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing on a workplace scale.
“Our employees wear Bluetooth low-energy locating cards when using the office as part of the platform. This was originally intended to help measure office density, analyze usage of different types of spaces, and help with meeting room bookings. However, it has proven extremely useful to assist HR departments in rapid contact tracing when made aware of a team member’s exposure,” added Lennox-King in an article for Smart Building Magazine. “In these data-driven times, we need to remember that systems designed to enhance physical and mental health, deliver collaborative working environments, and provide less stressful days in the office should similarly protect individuals.”
For the majority of the last decade, the smart buildings industry has been striving for new ways to improve the health and well-being of occupants, as well as making workplaces more appealing places to be, all in the name of productivity. The pandemic has certainly put the focus on the “health” portion of that mission but they will need the other elements to encourage workers back to the office and ensure they are comfortable. The only completely new part of the post-COVID smart building are the various forms of social distancing regulation they may be put in place by national and regional authorities.
“Measuring social distancing in the workplace is the name of the game. Especially now that the lockdown phase of COVID-19 is coming to an end, and we are starting to plan for the coming back to the office. Many governments are establishing [social distancing] guidelines to enable companies to open their offices,” explains a statement from Basking.io, another workplace analytics platform provider. “A big portion of employees are looking forward to coming back to work. Yet they also want to feel safe. Our users can quickly understand what happened in the building and understand what does it mean compared to the directives of WHO, MIT, and optionally the company’s directives.”
For many years, occupancy benchmarking research has shown a trend towards greater densification in offices, with less square footage per person as individual workspaces get smaller. As we come to accept that COVID-19 will be part of our lives for at least a few years, it becomes clear that a complete reversal of that densification trend will be required. However, companies will continue to strive for greater productivity and better space utilization, meaning they will need more information than ever to maintain the optimum balance in this new office environment. This turns smart workplace management platforms into a basic need.
“With pre-COVID office densification rates increasing across the world, combined with evidence of poor space utilization and the expectations of occupants for more human and productive environments, the need for workspace management platforms to provide better insight into the repurposing of current workplaces has never been so urgent,” explains our 2020 occupancy analytics report. The research found 221 companies actively engaged in providing occupancy analytics or location-based services to the office buildings sector. A 44% increase in the number of suppliers we identified just two years before.
“Occupancy monitoring in buildings has always been a valuable tool, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pretty much made it a necessity. In the last few months workplaces have quickly adapted and implemented COVID-19 safety measures,” explains a statement from Metrikus, another workspace platform. “However, without having access to real-time occupancy data, it is going to be impossible for these measures to be enforced. Using sensors to monitor your office space is the only way to understand and control how it is being used. It’s essential for upholding an effective social distancing policy and providing a safe and healthy environment in which to work.”
Workplace design firms and solution providers have had the same journey, in and out of the office, just like most companies in 2020. They have been faced with the same obstacles and challenges, they have experimented and made mistakes, and they are facing the same questions about the future of their own workplaces. The solutions that have come out of this period of reflection and uncertainty are more occupant-centric than ever before. By reversing a dangerous densification trend and connecting occupants to the building data, the COVID-19 crisis may have laid the foundations for truly human-centric workplaces.