There is no doubt that the global Covid-19 pandemic increased the number of people working from home, with an estimated 30% of office workers switching to remote work by the first week of April 2020. Now as vaccines roll out, lockdowns are lifted, and commercial businesses implement reopening plans, building owners and operators are tasked with enabling a safe return to the workplace via healthy, comfortable, and engaging environments that instill confidence and trust for all building occupants.With surveys indicating that more than 65% of employees are worried about their health in returning to the office, and this past year saw several allegations claiming unsafe employer working conditions, it’s obvious why nearly two-thirds of employers are planning to modify their facilities to ensure worker productivity, maintain business continuity, and reduce risk. Commercial real estate companies are also responding by increasing their focus on health and wellness within smart buildings. Pre-pandemic, these entities were already striving for buildings that attract, satisfy, and retain building occupants in part due to an oversupply of commercial office space and increased competition in the real estate market, as well as the growing expectations of Millennials who are projected to represent 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Covid-19 has amplified their already existing demand for healthy, collaborative, high-tech work and living spaces.
“Covid has underscored the fact that what happens within the four walls of a smart building is no longer just about how systems are functioning but rather how those systems affect people in the building, and occupants are now demanding to know this information,” says Michael Moran, chief markets officer and director of risk and sustainability for Microshare (www.microshare.com), a provider of solutions enabling some of the world’s largest firms to reopen facilities safety. “We are finally shifting away from the 20th century office culture towards a world where the concept of workplace wellness is far more important. We’ve demonstrated that many workers do not need to be in the office, and if companies don’t ensure a safe, comfortable environment, valuable employees will not come back.”
With the Covid-driven focus on health, safety, and wellbeing, several smart building technologies previously considered “nice to have” are now gaining ground in the market. In today’s digital world where occupants no longer blindly accept claims about building safety and cleanliness, building owners and operators will also need to consider how these technologies are perceived and ensure the ability to collect and share data in a way that confirms efficacy and value. At the same time, they are tasked with ensuring that investment in these technologies and the underlying infrastructure goes beyond resolving pandemic challenges to deliver on long-term smart-building goals.
Reducing surface and air contamination
One technology that has long been deployed in healthcare, water treatment, food, and agriculture industries is now making its way into the commercial enterprise. Ultraviolet C, or UV-C, light is a non-visible short-wavelength, high-energy light that is filtered out by the Earth’s atmosphere and kills or inactivates bacteria and microorganisms by damaging their genetic makeup.
“We’ve seen a growing interest in UV-C lighting outside of the typical healthcare setting, including for use in air handling systems and mobile solutions for cleaning hotel rooms and other spaces between uses,” says Bill Moten with Leading Edge Design Group (www.ledesigngroup.com) who provides planning, design, integration and build services for smart buildings. “Because UV-C is dangerous to humans, these systems need to be integrated with building occupancy and access control systems to prevent anyone from entering a space during disinfection.”
While UV-C solutions are a substantial upfront investment, the market has soared during the Covid-19 pandemic with various UV-C lamp styles and mobile options. By removing the human element, UV-C solutions can lower operating expense by reducing cleaning labor and ongoing material and disposal costs associated with vaporizers, misters, and other cleaning supplies.
“When the pandemic hit, some were making false claims about UV-C lighting solutions, which caused some fear and was a disservice to this proven technology,” says Dwight Stewart, founder and CTO for Igor, Inc (www.igor-tech.com) “Not only is it imperative that the technology be paired with intelligent controls, but the solutions should also be third-party tested and verified by the likes of UL to ensure they will operate correctly and ensure safety.”
Igor’s Nexos Intelligent UV-C Disinfection solution combines the disinfecting power of 2X2 UL-listed UV-C troffers with the connectivity of an automated IoT platform to ensure that rooms are occupied and safe for disinfection. Powered via Igor’s power over Ethernet (PoE) lighting node and easily integrated into their central cloud-based analytics software, UV-C disinfection typically occurs in a 90-minute cycle once a day, with additional bursts for heavily used spaces. A formula based on mounting height, square footage, and exposure time is used to properly space the right number of UV-C troffers within a given space.While UV-C lighting can keep bacteria off of air handling units to prevent mold and mildew, Igor doesn’t recommend this use as a means to killing the Covid-19 virus. Air typically passes through air handling systems too quickly and may not be exposed to the UV-C light long enough to effectively kill the virus. Another consideration is that the invisible nature of UV-C light can cause a safety issue, as well as doubt in the technology. “If people don’t see something working, it can be difficult for them to wrap their arms around it, and given the dangers of UV-C lighting, visual indication is critical. That’s why UV-C solutions have an integrated visible purple light,” explains Kim Johnson, vice president of marketing for Igor. “But what really makes UV-C lighting safe and cost effective is when it integrates in tandem with occupancy and people counting sensors, conference room scheduling, and access control systems as part of a broader smart building platform that enables automated scheduling, verifies room vacancy, and provides advanced data analytics.”
While UV-C lighting is ideal for eliminating Covid-19 from air and surfaces within a given space, the airborne nature of the virus has most companies mandating mask-wearing and other PPE for those returning to the workplace. Overall air quality and ventilation is now top of mind, also giving a market push to smart HVAC systems. “When the pandemic first hit, we had customers scrambling to replace faucets, soap dispensers, and door controls with touchless technology. These solutions are obvious and make people feel safe, but it’s really the air that we need to worry about,” says Bill Moten. “But if you’re pulling in fresh air and increasing ventilation, people don’t see it. That’s where data comes in. Automatically adjusting ventilation based on CO2 levels and then sharing that information in real time via digital signage or smartphone apps can go a long way in rebuilding trust and making people feel safe about coming back to the workplace.”
Smart building experts also warn against over-ventilating in response to the pandemic. “A big part of a sustainable smart building is reducing energy consumption, but now we see significantly increased ventilation rates that consume more energy. Some estimates show that the overventilation occurring due to the pandemic has a 10 to 15% energy penalty associated with it,” says Jiri Skopek, expert consultant in smart buildings and previous director of sustainability at JLL. “It has to be a balancing act, and smart building technologies with real-time feedback are critical to properly managing and modifying the amount of ventilation based on CO2 levels and occupancy in a way that maintains air quality while preventing costly overventilation.”
Creating agile, socially distanced collaborative spaces
Not all remote workers are expected to return to the office full time, with many adopting a hybrid approach as companies realize that work-from-home policies actually improved overall employee satisfaction without adversely impacting productivity. And the precedence is being set by the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce, Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, Deloitte, and dozens of others that recently announced plans for fully remote or hybrid work. Recent surveys indicate that while 72% of workers are ready to return to the office in some capacity, 99% have indicated that they prefer to work remotely at least some of the time. In fact 55% of remote workers in one survey stated that they would look elsewhere for employment if the remote work option was completely taken away. However, the fact remains that not everyone can work from home, and in many businesses like manufacturing, hospitality, and transportation, revenue is directly correlated to the number of people who can safely work in a facility. This necessitates innovative solutions to maintain social distancing and optimize use of space.
“With a hybrid workforce, there is a greater need for agile office spaces, and that relies on a variety of smart technologies working together like occupancy and people counting sensors, conference room scheduling, and real-time location systems to identify high traffic areas,” says Dwight Stewart of Igor. “Smart C02 sensors can also be leveraged to determine how much the same air is cycled between people and automatically turn up ventilation when levels are too high. There’s no magic bullet—it’s a comprehensive approach requiring multiple solutions and strategies.”
While audiovisual systems may not immediately come to mind enabling a safe return to the workplace, the fact that many remote workers have a new view on work-life balance means that companies need to create spaces that make people want to come to work. “People know what it’s like to work from home, and what used to be individuals in cubicles is now becoming a collaboration culture—if workers feel they can collaborate better outside of the office, they will continue to do so. Smart AV systems therefore play a key part of adapting to a new norm,” says Jessica Lessard, AV Business Development Manager for Panduit (www.panduit.com).
According to Lessard, when it comes to AV systems, room and desk space scheduling, touch-free operation, BYOD, multi-display capabilities, and overall better quality audio and video that improve engagement across both remote and on-site workers are getting the most attention since the pandemic. Panduit’s Atlona AV systems for example allows for wireless sharing content from iOS, Android, Mac, Chromebook, or Windows devices all hands free. It also connects to occupancy sensors or other motion detection devices and automatically displays instructions for connecting wirelessly when participants enter a room.
“The ability to push out high-quality content to multiple locations is ideal for supporting a hybrid workforce or when you need to separate people into different conference rooms to keep occupancy down within a space,” she says. “Digital signage is also getting a big push from Covid as a means for companies to communicate critical announcements and health information, as well as building guidelines and wayfinding.”
Engaging and leveraging building occupantsConventional smart building design often assumed that occupants were simply passive participants, but the latest trend is to view occupants as active participants and engage them in ensuring healthy, safe, and clean environments. According to Microshare’s Moran, employee engagement can further improve trust and satisfaction for those returning to the workspace, while reducing expense. For example, easy-to-deploy touchless feedback stations that allow occupants to anonymously report concerns or problems provide a way for companies to engage employees and measure satisfaction. They can also act as a predictive cleaning solution that enables facilities to respond quickly and get ahead of problems.
“Commercial cleaning used to be the unforeseen task that happened at night, but facilities now need to clean multiple times a day often with the same resources they had prior to the pandemic. It’s much less costly to only clean the areas that need it, and that means they need data,” says Moran. “Occupancy tracking is ideal for knowing when a space hasn’t been used to eliminate unnecessary cleaning, but plenty of relevant data can also be collected directly from occupants themselves. Unfortunately, no one wants to be the naysayer and raise their hand to indicate that a bathroom is out of toilet paper or needs cleaning. Anonymized reporting from touchless feedback monitors placed throughout a facility can eliminate that problem while engaging occupants.”
While occupant tracking can also provide valuable information to help maintain social distancing, optimize traffic flow, and save energy, privacy concerns remain a challenge. That is one reason why broader public contract tracing via smartphone apps has not been overly successful during the pandemic, despite being considered one of the most effective ways to contain the outbreak. There are however more secure enterprise-based smart contact tracing solutions available that are gaining acceptance among building occupants, making them feel more confident about returning to the workplace.
Based on the technology used for their asset tracking solutions, Microshare’s Universal Contact Tracing solution includes long-battery life wearable wristbands or badges embedded with Bluetooth beacons that communicate wirelessly via LoRaWAN gateways positioned throughout a facility. These gateways provide a secure data backhaul to create a historic database of contact events, which are typically defined as exposure to an infected individual for 10 minutes at 6 feet or less. Interactions between badge wearers are recorded, noting time and location and duration. Information remains anonymous and unused unless a Covid-19 diagnosis is determined. The database is then queried by human resources or a wellness officer to determine if that badge owner generated any contact events within a given time frame. Badge numbers for those exposed are then matched to individuals who are asked to self-quarantine. The data can also be used to indicate which rooms were potentially affected so they can be disinfected.
“Contract tracing via smartphones is vulnerable to security issues, subject to battery failure or disabling, or simply impractical in some environments. Every technology can be misused, but if designed with proper controls and intelligence, contract tracing can save lives,” explains Moran of Microshare, a leading provider of contract tracing solutions. “A separate enterprise system with consent coming from employees accepting a wristband that will trace their interactions while they are in the office is much more secure. When we explain it that way to building owners and operators, the lightbulb goes on.”
ROI and infrastructure considerations remainWhen it comes to implementing smart building technologies that enable a safe return to the workplace and create attractive environments that lure employees back, the smarter the building and more robust the underlying infrastructure, the easier and more cost-effective it is to deploy solutions. But that doesn’t mean that lower-tech facilities can’t partake or that ROI doesn’t come into play.
“Most of the opportunities we see are with new buildings, but many of the older buildings is where we worry more about air quality. If the network infrastructure isn’t there to support IP-based smart building technologies, and they can’t upgrade, wireless sensor technologies are the quickest, most cost-effective method,” says Moten of Leading Edge Design Group. “This could be cellular- or Bluetooth-based solutions, Zigbee or other wireless technology. We’re seeing a lot of low-data sensors for monitoring CO2 and humidity levels use the LoRaWAN protocol to communicate wirelessly with gateways throughout a facility that connect to the IP network for collecting and analyzing data.”
Using PoE-enabled nodes, Igor’s Nexos IoT smart building platform is another solution that that can gather information from a variety of device that use wireless communications protocols such as Zigbee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth and then transform that data into IP-based information for analysis, control, and reporting. “Our system is protocol agnostic to connect to actuators, lights, sensors and other devices and aggregate the information within our central software system to provide one common interface so that all the data is part of the same experience,” explains Igor’s Dwight Stewart.
With cost and ensuring ROI a challenge for businesses needing to implement technology for a safe return to the workplace, ease of implementation is a consideration. “Facilities managers are still reluctant to allow outside people into their buildings, and they want to ensure technologies can be implemented quickly with as few contractors on site as possible,” says Panduit’s Lessard. “Quick deployment via user-friendly platforms has become more important during the pandemic, which is why our customers appreciate our easily programmable Atlona AV solution with remote IP-based set-up and simple drop-down menus.”
Smart building experts point out that implementing the right infrastructure and technologies today can go beyond enabling a safe return to the workplace to deliver savings and meet long-term business goals. “Covid will eventually go away, but the same infrastructure and technologies being deployed will still be there, and that unlocks significant possibilities for the future,” says Microshare’s Moran. “No one want to invest in something that is only useful for one or two years, and technologies being deployed in response to Covid have long-term bottom line benefits. Take air quality for example—right now, people what to know that there is sufficient ventilation, but the fact is that by the middle of the afternoon, CO2 builds up in spaces by such a degree that it affects worker productivity. Beyond Covid, there are millions of dollars that can be regained just by monitoring and adjusting air quality.”
Betsy Conroy is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant, specializing in business-to-business media and commerce. She has 30 years’ experience writing technical content.