Mike Hughes, UK & Ireland Zone President, Schneider Electric
As businesses re-open and others continue their preparation to welcome employees back to the workplace, the open-plan office suddenly looks more risky than revolutionary. The ability to network while hot-desking, learn by listening and brainstorm at the water cooler has turned from benefit to liability practically overnight. Today, employers have many considerations, ranging from who should get priority access to the workplace, to the use of titanium door handles and ultra-violet lights to kill off germs.
With the help of modern technology, we can make office spaces safer, more comfortable, more profitable and ultimately more sustainable. Businesses can ensure staff are rewarded with quality time in the office when they spend time commuting – while reducing costs and safeguarding the planet in the process.
Meet modern demands
The impact of social distancing measures has ramifications on energy consumption in buildings. Currently a greatly reduced number of people can occupy buildings, yet in most cases no adjustment will be made to switch lights off in unoccupied areas, adjust heating systems to reflect fewer bodies in the office, and maintenance (including cleaning) has been increased. For office systems dependant on a manual switch, running everything all the time could become a default setting.
Buildings are already the planet’s biggest consumers of energy, and the most inefficient. As a society with zero net carbon ambitions, we could rapidly find ourselves in a situation where commercial and public buildings have less than 30 per cent occupancy but consume as much or even more energy than before.
The right business decisions
Many will ask whether we even need to maintain expensive and potentially redundant office spaces. With a number of high-profile businesses already encouraging homeworking for the rest of the year, it’s tempting to hail the demise of the office. Yet the newest data suggests that remote working is not for everyone. Research found 71 per cent of us are struggling to adjust to remote work, 65 per cent say maintaining employee morale has been a challenge, and more than a third are facing difficulties with company culture.
Employers can’t ignore these findings. Talent is the single biggest cost for most businesses and attracting and retaining the right candidates is challenging. The workplace environment, well-being, flexible working and brand image, including sustainability credentials, are all increasingly important to employees.
Office of the future
If office spaces are here to stay, how do we ensure built environments work for people, planet and profit? As companies decide whether to downsize their office space in favour of more flexible working, optimising office space will be more important than ever.
Data and the latest technology hold the key. We must create a smarter workplace with joined-up systems allowing us to monitor and automate key processes, including staff seating arrangements based on capacity and occupancy levels, and ensure smart heating, ventilation and lighting provide health benefits and comfort, while reducing the energy bill and helping protect the environment.
Modern office management technology can ensure that social distancing is maintained by ensuring employees are located appropriately in agreed zones (enabling lighting, heating and other functions to be switched off or reduced in areas that aren’t occupied). It can determine the best office flows to minimise unnecessary contact and ensure these are being followed. Vacated desks and occupied areas can be flagged for cleaning as soon as they are vacated (directing cleaning to the relevant areas instead of cleaning everything all the time), and fresh air can be pumped during the hours required. Creating a healthy, comfortable work environment creates a more enjoyable and productive workplace and is proven to increase staff retention.
What about profit? Property owners can already command greater value from spaces that have lower carbon emissions and higher levels of comfort. For the businesses occupying these offices, smart buildings offer a return of ten to one on investment. Lower energy bills, reduced maintenance costs and increased staff retention all directly improve the bottom line.
As restrictions lift, the main challenge we face is rebuilding confidence. Without it, efforts to jump-start economic growth and boost productivity will falter. Smarter buildings are key to creating healthier, more productive workplaces, improving profitability and protecting the planet.