We need to seize the chance to make our buildings far more intelligent

Even before the pandemic, statistics were making the case for workplaces to be made up of more intelligent buildings. This includes the fact that offices generally operate at around 55-60 percent utilisation, and as we return to the office are currently at 45 percent utilisation. From presenteeism to absenteeism and many other factors in between, workplaces have seldom been utilised by entire workforces at the same time. However, the prevailing approach has been for firms to drive an office setup with one-to-one desking – a seat for every employee, even though five in 10 would not be in at any one time.

Of course, many organisations were already embracing different approaches before the pandemic, but others have not considered alternatives or been held back for numerous reasons.

Take the finance sector. Bankers and traders have historically been office-based because they lack the compliant laptops and remote working technology to work from home, or simply regulation prevents remote working. During the pandemic the UK government relaxed regulations, a move which enabled the remote working shift to take place. Yet those rules have been tightened once again, and office work has returned.

For other sectors, the pandemic has shone a light on making better use of workspaces when employees return, either on a full-time or hybrid basis. Indeed, many companies have realised that a one-to-one desking approach that was still commonplace prior to March 2020 is no longer fit for purpose.


Building a more intelligent workplace

Generally, I expect to see organisations beginning to realise the advantages of a corporate real estate portfolio being made up of hubs, located strategically in key places. From a design perspective, we will create an ecosystem of technology-enabled experiences that support our convenience, functionality, sustainability and wellness. Let’s explore a few of these dynamics.

On the health and wellness side, data is helping building managers to create optimised environments for occupants in regard to heating, cooling and cleaning. By deploying sensors in key areas and tracking the movement of people, decisions around when and where heating needs to be adjusted, as well as cleaning schedules, can be underpinned by intelligence and information.

This also ties into the realm of sustainability. COP26, held in Glasgow in November, reaffirmed commitments to the net zero transition, with the UK government also revealing plans to mandate the publication of net zero strategies for companies operating in high-emitting sectors of the economy.

A relatively simple and cost-effective intelligent feature being widely deployed across workspaces is intelligent lighting. Once again based on sensors, this facilitates sizable energy savings and can also serve as an interior design feature as settings can be made entirely bespoke.

Co-working spaces are another central feature. By removing the one-to-one desking approach, more space is being freed up to create more collaborative and stimulating environments – this is creating a key differential from home working and offering employees a compelling reason to use the office.

When designing these newly purposed spaces, a key consideration is how to incorporate the aforementioned features while maintaining a strong security posture.

Co-working spaces by their very nature need to be open to multiple users, meaning the use of gates may need to change. Once again, technology is proving to be an enabler with biometric solutions such as facial recognition and fingerprint scanners, although this is not to suggest that there is no longer a place for simpler, old-school solutions such as keys and swipe cards.

Concierge services could have an important role to play as well. Not only are these colleagues helping to create a more personalised experience for building occupants, but they can also act as an extra layer of security by making sure the right people are directed to the right places. This type of concierge service is well explored in markets such as Australia in New Zealand, and we are starting to see more of this in managed buildings and workplaces here in the UK.


Two keys to unlocking intelligent buildings

If the sorts of features and benefits described are to be properly realised, there are a couple of potential hurdles that will need to be overcome.

Intelligent buildings and workplaces, while of course utilising smart technologies, sensors and systems, also need to factor in the human experience. This can be a hinderance as well as an accelerator.

Real estate and the built environment is a people-based industry, and it can be extremely complex managing all the needs of different stakeholders who use a building. This can be seen in the development of building or workplace apps – although there are several examples out there of this being done well, the UK is seen as being somewhat behind the curve in this space.

Those that are done well improve the human experience, be it through convenience, access to information, the ability to provide feedback and other touchpoints in between.

When it comes to sensors, it is equally important to canvass opinion on the level of tech-based intrusion they are willing to accept when coming into work. In many cases, monitoring movement can be carried out anonymously, with people assigned numbers or treated as objects – this message needs communicating to those who are sceptical.

The second key involves landlord-occupier relations. In light of COP26 announcements and the UK’s transition to carbon neutrality, a major component of this will centre around decarbonising our building stock. If this is to happen successfully, landlords must be able to connect with occupants on sustainability metrics – a two-way dialogue that sensor technology in particular can facilitate by providing extensive real-time information on building usage.