In 1983, the World Health Organization created the term "sick building syndrome," focusing on indoor air quality as one of the most important factors around what makes a building healthy. But with the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea of a healthy building has taken on a whole new meaning. While air quality is still paramount, a healthy building now includes physical and emotional health and well-being.

For a year now, people have been working from home while office buildings have sat dormant, sending building managers into overdrive to prepare for a safe return, whenever that may be. Beyond just occupancy monitoring, ventilation control and space management, employers are also having to consider everything from what groups should get access to the workplace first to installing ultra-violet lighting and replacing door fixtures with titanium handles to kill germs.

While a true return to the office looks different across the globe, building managers and employers are tasked with the challenge of not only making sure that they have prepared the office building for a safe return, but that the occupants feel motivated to make that return. In fact, according to a poll by Eagle Hill Consulting, 54% of U.S. employees say they are worried about exposure to Covid-19 at their job, but 71% have confidence that their employers can bring them back to work safely.

The Value Of Employees

People are one of the most valuable assets of any organization. In fact, in a commercial office building, they are typically the most expensive asset at roughly $300/ft. But with the accounting laws that are in place and how leases are structured, occupants are often seen as a liability. This creates a challenge for facility and real estate professionals who need to keep operating expenses and capital expenditures costs as low as possible.

Given this, it’s no surprise that various aspects of a building environment — including CO2 concentrations, temperature, humidity, lighting, noise and more — are often off balance, impacting workers’ performance in the office. We’ve all experienced meetings in a frigid conference room that affect not only our comfort but our cognitive functioning. While many can identify with the cold temperatures, far fewer understand that it is the result of the building overcompensating in anticipation of high occupant density. But this only works if there is an accurate snapshot of occupants in the conference room.

As building operators and employers grapple not only with existing office challenges like temperature but also new concerns around sickness, those that will ultimately succeed in bringing employees back are those that provide employees with access, information and control. This will not only allow employees to feel safe about their return to work, but also will motivate them to return in the first place.

Empowering Occupants With Mobile Applications

Improving occupant well-being isn’t limited to the changes building managers make to the building and its systems. Part of well-being is having relaxed, less anxious, confident and productive occupants. And one of the ways to help achieve this is by providing employees with the ability to engage with the building itself.

Smart building apps act as a single “source of truth” where teams can deliver critical information and communicate with specific departments directly while employees can use applications to better navigate the new normal in the office. Putting elements of the building control in the hands of the occupants provides occupants with a level of control. For example, using a mobile app to control things like elevators, pin pads, lighting switches, audio/visual equipment and thermostats reduces worker anxiety about getting sick with limited touchpoints. On top of that, being able to change lighting, temperature and open blinds in a meeting room allows employees to interact with their workspace as they do with their home.

But empowering employees with a digitized workplace experience is not possible if the building infrastructure isn’t set up to support it. Many of today’s office buildings have building management systems that only support plant systems. Others — like those that control security, safety and lighting — are controlled by their own applications and supervisor panels with their own support networks. In contrast, an intelligent building management system (iBMS) allows building systems and services to interact together. When data from systems and devices can be transmitted back to an iBMS, it creates an operating system for the entire building.

The lack of interoperability between different building systems is one of the major inhibitors of the adoption of smart building technology and subsequently building applications for employees. Open protocol systems that allow all systems to communicate in a common language is critical to success.

In addition, connected devices and an IoT ecosystem are fundamental building blocks for success, and it impacts everyone from occupants to landlords to building managers. For example, facial recognition technology means an occupant can enter the building without an ID card while sensors on lifts can monitor shaft alignment and cab speed and identify maintenance needs. But to make this connected world a reality, building owners and real estate developers need to make the investment and start retrofitting their buildings for a return to the workplace.

Having the right infrastructure in place allows facility managers and building operators to get a deeper level of insight into how employees are using the spaces to make improvements and adjustments in real time to improve the health score of their buildings.

What’s Next?

As the year gets underway, it is yet to be seen what the next normal will look like and when we might return to life as we know it. But crowded elevators, packed boardrooms and packed co-working spaces are more than likely a thing of the past.

Buildings and in-office collaboration still play a critical role in business. If we want to motivate employees to return to work, we need to create an environment where they feel productive and confident in their safety and well-being. Smart buildings can help make that a reality.


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