Facilities Tech Facilitates Return To The Office

Providing healthy, personalized spaces for work is key to post-pandemic commercial building flexibility and appeal for employees.

By Rachel Ellerman

The COVID-19 pandemic drove many people out of traditional commercial spaces and into their home offices. At home, it is easy for workers to feel safe, secure, and comfortable because they have full control over their flexible work environment. A recent Pew Research poll that found 54% of workers actually prefer using their home office at least part of the time.

This creates a quandary for the commercial buildings market: How can building owners make their spaces more flexible to support the future of hybrid work and maximize productivity of their people — especially when working on-site or deciding between home and office?

Photo: Getty Images

Proactive building operators are achieving this flexibility and meeting post-pandemic occupant expectations by improving facilities to deliver value in three key areas:

  • Healthy and safe spaces
  • Personalized work experiences
  • Seamless collaboration

Delivering value in these three areas will result in improvements in employee health and comfort, and give operators a more holistic view over the well-being of their occupants and spaces. Achieving this is dependent on the use of certain building technologies, and how occupants interact with those technologies, so that deserves additional consideration.

Healthy, Safe Spaces

There are many ways occupants interact with buildings that contribute to health and safety, from scanning their badge at the main entrance to adjusting lighting or temperature in a room. As buildings get smarter and more integrated, more occupants are interacting and communicating with buildings using smartphone apps that easily support their on-the-go decisions with insights and integrated workflows. Apps give occupants an immediate, contact-free way to adjust their space comfort, access personalized or team-based security features, select options to protect their health, and verify their safety and the safety of the spaces around them.

These features can have a positive impact on the health of occupants and can cater to those who may have certain health concerns. For example, users could request regular reports on air quality that are broken down by room. A user sensitive to allergens could book a room based on those air quality reports or reserve a hot desk based on real-time occupancy and with visibility into desk protocol, then navigate to that desk via a route that avoids crowded areas.

App features can support operations of hybrid employees by giving someone with no fixed workstation the ability to reserve a storage locker for work supplies and even lock and unlock it remotely. Apps can also be used to receive localized security notifications with helpful details and recommended actions. This could include a fender-bender in the garage, a fire in the lab or an emergency door opened on the ground floor. By providing guidance on how to handle the situation, the app removes stress from the individual and helps resolve issues quickly and correctly.

Another healthy building technology — automatic contact tracing — is used to monitor and alert users who may have had contact with another person who has symptoms of illness. This technology is a large step towards helping control the spread of airborne infections within buildings. For an added layer of security, facial recognition technology is now being used to permit frictionless, safe entrance into an office, activate work computers, and allow access to a network.

Personalized Work Experiences

In the new hybrid workplace, expectations for personalized spaces are reaching an all-time high. Some employees have spent over a year working from home, while others have developed unique hybrid schedules. For building operators, the challenge is not only understanding these varying expectations, but also implementing the right technologies that can help meet them.work

These expectations often revolve around building comfort features like temperature, lighting, noise, and privacy. Building technology is helping in these areas:

  • Temperature: The latest connected building technology allows all occupants in a room to request ideal temperature ranges and then leverages an algorithm to provide an optimum setting to satisfy all occupants.
  • Lighting: Certain technologies can gather lighting preferences, including the use of blinds, and use that to automatically adjust lighting and blind settings in singular or group office settings — with the goal of meeting comfort as well as energy efficiency goals.
  • Noise: For many people, noise is a large factor in productivity. Today’s connected buildings have features that allow the customization of noise levels by room, like introducing white noise as needed, or lowering noise curtains to block unwanted sound.
  • Privacy: Some occupants may be okay using a building’s public spaces jointly, while others may prefer a more private setting. For those seeking privacy, users can reserve rooms based on occupancy levels, or opt to add or remove mobile app functionality based on their level of comfort with sharing information and preferences.

For maximum convenience, technology manufacturers have made these features usable through apps which puts control in the occupant hands. Most importantly, personalization opportunities are as varied as one can imagine. As long as a function can be digitally integrated into a healthy building operation, it can be part of the occupant personalization package.

Seamless Collaboration

Healthy buildings also reaffirm the value and benefits of a communal workplace, which include a thriving corporate culture, an area to focus creativity and the collaborative spirit of working close to your peers. A healthy, flexible building will also reduce barriers to productivity. These concepts can be achieved by optimizing the occupants’ time and fully supporting them by delivering on concepts that reward and support their use of the facility.

One example is integrating an e-mail/calendar suite with the building’s other smart functions. This allows seamless room booking with insights into equipment and physical space details alongside virtual collaboration options, navigation to newly repurposed spaces, access to the building only when meetings are planned, and scheduling both private and collaborative work sessions. A centralized news and help desk application is another value-added function, with which a user can seek out localized information and request technical assistance.

Making It All Work

All of the above-mentioned technologies are valuable as standalone solutions, and even more valuable as an integrated solution set.

So, how does all this work together? That’s where a connected suite of technologies is critical. For occupants, the connected technology must maximize the user experience by seamlessly delivering on their expectations. Likewise, the same technology must help facility operators understand what’s going on in their building. Behind the scenes, this technology should be hard at work developing data-driven reports, predicting supply and demand of space and supplies, issuing maintenance and cleaning requests proactively, resolving conflicting requests, and streamlining schedules.

Today’s workers are expecting a lot more from their employers and the buildings where they work. Occupants will demand buildings that deliver on the promises of health, safety and personalization they can create at home. While it is difficult to mimic the at-home work experience, these healthy building technologies go a long way to provide a flexible environment capable of making everyone feel healthy and safe — and a collaborative culture that can generate continued appeal for commercial spaces.

Ellerman is digital solutions product manager at Johnson Controls. Her passion for experiences and outcomes has driven her to make buildings safer and smarter for over 20 years. As an inventor and thought leader, Ellerman is focused on people and their goals as we re-imagine the spaces where we live, work, and play. She received her MBA and Bachelors Degree in English and Biomedical Sciences from Marquette University and hold two patents for Building Management Systems with Mode Based Control of Spaces and Places and Building Management Systems with Space Use Case Profiles.