As countries, the world over, reopen their economies, business and building owners are exploring what they need to do to facilitate the return of employees to the workplace. Although this next phase is essential in responding to pandemic-induced unemployment and kick-starting the supply chain, it’s also fraught with genuine concern.
Smart building technology: The secret to successful reopening
The Wharton School recently predicted that relaxing restrictions could lead to a decrease in social distancing, causing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Nevertheless, the thought of keeping the economy shut is even less appealing, with experts already predicting a recession deeper than the one in 2008-09. People need to work, landlords need to be paid, and supply chains need to get back up to speed. All stakeholders – from local and federal governments to corporations and small businesses – are looking for the secret to ‘re-opening’ with the lowest risk, and one of the critical pieces of that puzzle is smart building management.
Global technology research company, Omdia predicts sales of smart building technologies will close in on USD 700 million by the end of 2020. It further posits that demand for smart buildings will remain strong, despite depressed sales and shutdowns in other industries. This is largely due to the fact that corporate offices across industries will rely on these tech solutions, to manage their re-emergence from nationwide lockdowns.
Identifying limitations the pandemic has imposed
To understand the central role of tech-enabled smart building management, in responding to a dramatically altered world, one needs to first look at the ways in which the COVID-19 crisis has redefined work arrangements. The two key disruptions to have emerged in the aftermath of the pandemic are remote working and reframed working arrangements for those workforces that are returning to shared workspaces. Broadly speaking, these can be described as:
- Working from home, and how it has changed the way we work
When employees converted their dining tables into desks, they fundamentally challenged established beliefs about remote working. Surprisingly, many employers found that workers could be just as productive from home as they were at the office. In turn, employees learned that not commuting saved them time and money, and allowed them to work with a more flexible schedule, leading to better work-life balance. For some, this shift to remote work arrangements will continue indefinitely.
- New rules for the new workplace
Slowing the spread of the coronavirus remains a priority even as workers return to their daily commutes and pre-COVID routines. It’s important to continue to maintain social distancing, as well as frequent hand washing and surface sanitisation, in accordance with CDC guidelines; in fact, such measures are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Considering such factors as the number of individuals using a given space, the need for monitoring air quality, carrying out health checks and determining how shared amenities are utilised, the list of changes to be incorporated in the ‘new normal’ workplace is extensive.
Acceleration of digital transformation in building management
In recent years, the commercial real estate industry had already been proactively adopting unified and centralised smart building management solutions, which leveraged AI and IoT technologies to reshape building operations and maintenance. In the pre-pandemic scenario, the benefits of such digital suites centred on increased efficiency, optimised returns, value-added services for tenants and greater sustainability in operations. In the era of ‘new normal’, birthed by COVID-19 – which is requiring facilities management teams to deliver unprecedented quality, with much greater consistency than ever before – the case for widespread adoption of smart building technologies has become even more compelling. Some of the critical post-pandemic needs that centralised digital management of properties addresses include:
- Social distancing in the workplace
Employees may not be able to come back to the same layouts, especially in offices that utilise an open workspace environment or cubicles that force people to work in close proximity. Digital tools can empower building management teams by giving them means to monitor and enforce social distancing in real-time. IoT- and sensor-based smart building management technologies make it possible to measure occupancy on an ongoing basis, as well as in identifying spaces that require more careful management, due to the relative footfall they draw.
- Tracking the movement of individuals in managed spaces
Knowing where people are inside the building is now a critical data point for decision-makers. They can choose to move people to less-used areas or reroute traffic to reduce the number of people passing one another. Management might decide to program the elevators to move a single direction or to adjust the cleaning schedule to ensure that high-traffic areas are disinfected several times a day. All of these measures, and more, benefit from the granular and system-wide transparency that a network of digital tools can enable.
- Facility management and sanitisation measures
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) reports that the concentration of air pollutants can be up to five times higher indoors. Monitoring and improving air quality has long been one of the core areas of focus for Facility Management (FM) personnel. Instead of manually measuring air quality and changing air filters throughout the building, FM teams can now rely on smart building management technology to facilitate remote automation and real-time, data-driven and targeted maintenance. These capabilities are particularly crucial, as social distancing mandates smaller onsite teams for service providers within buildings.
- Cloud, connectivity and remote management of automated systems
With limitations on the size of workforces that can be feasibly deployed by FM teams, the ability to operate and manage embedded building management remotely is crucial. Connected buildings link building automation suites to centralised platforms, which are accessible to remote personnel through Cloud. Even the allocation and inventory of shared resources and services benefits from such connectivity. For instance, sensors can track levels of soap and paper products in restrooms, simplifying top-ups. Instead of sending staff out to wander the floors, FM teams can now achieve high-quality outcomes, using a much leaner workforce than in legacy models.
Achieving consistency in outcomes
Without a doubt, the most significant challenge faced by all stakeholders, in the context of re-opening the economy, is regaining an acceptable degree of control over our environment and operations. Given the high price of falling short of unfailing consistency in adhering to highly specific standards, implementing digital technologies in the post-pandemic world is a no-brainer. Our buildings are the spaces within which the vast majority of our activities and interactions occur, and this new digitised model of smart building management will emerge as the new standard approach, for commercial real estate operations.
The writer is CEO, Netix Global BV. He may be contacted at email@example.com.