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Smart offices need to become even smarter to meet expectations for health and safety.

The Smarter Smart Office: 5 Tech Steps to Take

Aug. 18, 2022
Smart workplaces need to become even smarter and more responsive to meet expectations for health and safety.

To remain economically viable and meet employee expectations for health and safety, smart workplaces need to become even smarter and more responsive. Skyrocketing energy prices, COVID and climate change issues have sharpened the need for higher intelligence in office environments.

The good news: progress is already happening.

Connected sensors, for surveillance and measuring the environment, are IoT devices by definition. They have proliferated in new, smarter buildings and are retrofitted into older structures. This is not an IoT story about sensors and cameras, however. They are eyes and ears for the smarter office—important enablers to be sure, but they are not the brain. Higher building intelligence uses the data generated by sensors or collected through other means, but is really centered in analytics and AI used to process the data.

According to Gartner, IoT expenditures in smart buildings reached $53 billion in 2020 and are expected to reach $108 billion by 2030. Juniper Research predicts smart building deployments will grow by over 150% in the next four years, reaching $115 million in 2026 from $45 million in 2022. This reflects increasing demand for energy efficiency from businesses and residents alike as energy costs spike.

Your Building’s IQ: Why Employees Care

It’s easy to assume that with COVID fading, smart buildings and offices are all about energy conservation today. That’s not the entire picture, however. Post-COVID employees have enduring attitude changes about workplaces and work. Research by PWC and the London School of Business found that what people experience outside their work impacts how they approach their jobs. They want the same speed, intuition and customization at work that they get in their online entertainment, retail and mobile experiences. As it relates to smart buildings, think safety and (for want of a better word) comfort, which boosts productivity and loyalty.

Here are five steps to take that will help progress to the smarter office of the future.

1. Data for Smarter Offices: People are Sensors, Too

Smart building sensors and cameras collect data on temperature, humidity, motion, occupants, water, and air pressure and quality (including carbon monoxide levels and smoke). There’s another vital data source: people. Why not give employees a feedback mechanism to tell the office operating system they feel too cold, too stuffy or distracted by noise?

Employees can also contribute alerts: this space is too crowded, I see a fire hazard, an employee here is sick or acting aggressively and it feels risky. Allow employees to request a temperature range for their work area, and balance that with company policy and control of window shades. This implies granular responsiveness to employee preferences, as well as their occupancy and usage of spaces.

2. Combine Cross-sensor Data, Reach Across Data Silos and Functions

Today, smart office management systems can maintain temperature, humidity and recommend washroom cleaning based on usage. They are designed to increase efficiency, but each activity is still managed separately, not as a whole.

To get better at combined management of air, energy, safety and compliance, systems need better scenario forecasts based on all the available sources of data. This can enable more holistic AI-driven insights to fulfill multiple priorities. In practice, air conditioning and lighting can continually be mapped to occupancy by a management system that learns to start heating or cooling before employees actually arrive, and then responds based on employees’ feedback throughout the workday.

3. Move from Insights to Direct Management

Some building analytics systems provide insight but do not tell control systems when and how to adjust office assignments, window shades and cleaning schedules. Today, building management systems that provide automated control generally focus on a single function, such as HVAC. There is opportunity for increasingly intelligent systems to act on multiple functional areas, following parameters set by facilities managers and security departments. They will need to draw on multiple data sources to arrive at the best-outcome scenarios and act on them. The tradeoffs of employee comfort, energy costs and open windows need ongoing balancing and management—preferably without frequent human intervention.

4. Benchmark Against Aggregate Data from Other Buildings

It can be useful for building managers, employees and building management systems to receive benchmark data to compare and set targets for energy consumption, air quality and water usage. A business owner might not realize how much more efficient the HVAC is at other buildings, nor how much its IAQ and employee satisfaction could improve, relative to nearby workplaces.

With more comprehensive and current data on IAQ, companies are better able to coax worried employees back to a central workplace. Before COVID, few thought of humidity as a tool for viral control, but the right setting (about 70%) can lower transmission risk. Buildings need to be smart enough to continually balance and adjust air quality factors including the indoor/outdoor air mix and contaminant levels. Employers need every possible advantage to cut carbon footprint, keep employees satisfied, and reduce usage of water and fossil fuels.

5. Use Analytics and AI to Recommend Management Scenarios

With a holistic range of data sources, fed by the right selection of sensors, the smarter workplace can apply analytics and AI to target the best feasible budget, user satisfaction and safety outcomes for energy, access control and air quality scenarios. Management can decide how much control to give an AI-enhanced smart building management system over a building’s heating, cooling, access controls and room scheduling.

Smart buildings analytics help achieve outcomes that support company policies and employee preferences. AI may play a major role in weighing the tradeoffs to balance policies of managing smart offices. Combined together with data from multiple sources, the increasingly capable analytic platforms and AI-enabled systems will bring a new level of intelligence to smart offices.

About the Author:

William Cowell de Gruchy is the CEO of Infogrid.

About the Author

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