Smart Buildings for Smart Workers: improving the efficiency of workers and buildings

Author | Tania Alonso

The days of desk-filled offices with employees answering the phone, checking their screens and patiently waiting for a coffee break are long gone. These traditional models are being replaced by other more agile and dynamic models that foster collaboration and knowledge sharing.

This new work method has changed the way in which office spaces are designed, organised and distributed. And it has led to more companies choosing smart buildings to bring the workforce together. Offices in which technology is available for users to improve their experience and optimise productivity.

Improved buildings thanks to their own data

A vast number of processes are automated and controlled in smart buildings: lighting systems, heating, communications or multimedia systems, to name but a few. Behind these systems are the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and intelligent Building Management Systems (iBMS).

Objects connected to the internet (from light bulbs to coffee machines, to office chairs that analyse posture) facilitate work and improve the quality of the employee experience. They also enable activity data to be collected and data on how the workplace functions. Once analysed, this information enables companies to further optimise the work environment.

“By providing employees with the right environment, tools and facilities to work more productively, a company’s work environment can become a catalyst for innovation and growth”, according to Owen King, Senior Consultant at Unwork in the report ‘Smart Working: Smart Buildings and the Future of Work’.

Healthier and more productive employees

Smart buildings can greatly improve employee comfort. And, consequently, employee performance. According to the ‘Interface’s global human spaces report’, wellbeing and productivity levels increase by 13% in work environments containing natural elements, for example.

Smart technology can also have a positive impact on health. The Wellness Real Estate philosophy believes the right combination of technology and design in buildings can truly enhance the physical wellbeing of their occupants.

Lighting, for example, is essential. Reduced contact with natural light can cause fatigue, headaches and even sleeping disorders. Smart lighting systems can adjust the colours and brightness levels to imitate sunlight, thus adapting to the circadian rhythms (biological rhythms associated with environmental changes).

Very high or very low temperatures, together with increased atmospheric CO2 levels, can also cause tiredness. Thanks to connected sensors, ventilation and temperature control systems can identify how many people are in each room in order to adjust the optimal air quality. And they can be programmed to maintain the ideal temperature.

Another solution to enhance the employee experience is to install connected workspaces. This enables workers’ postures to be analysed. And, if any bad habits or health problems are identified, these can be prevented, or action can be taken to resolve them. Musculoskeletal disorders are the main cause of working days lost in offices in many countries. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, in 2013 they accounted for 30 million working days lost in the United Kingdom alone.

Spaces designed for teamwork

Workplace sensors not only measure physical aspects, they can also improve business performance. Smart infrastructures enable employees to access real-time location, occupancy and workspace allocation recognition systems, for example.

This allows workers to know which rooms are occupied at all times, reserve spaces or locate colleagues. Even make video calls and connect to devices located in another part of the building. Or programme lifts so they are ready at a specific time.

These systems enable employees to improve their performance and optimise their time. However, there is more to them than this. A study conducted with data from a pharmaceutical company identified a positive correlation between cross-team interactions and higher sales volumes. The company then used this data to justify installing a large canteen facility and more shared spaces. After these changes, sales rose by $200 million.

The Edge in Amsterdam

The Edge is the name of the building in Amsterdam designed for its main tenant, Deloitte. And it is considered to be one of the smartest buildings in the world. As soon as employees are near the building, they are connected via an app.

This guides them to a parking space and allocates a workspace depending on their work schedule. It may be a meeting room, a balcony seat or a concentration room, for example. Nobody has an allocated place (in fact, there are twice as many workers as there are desks).

This organisation is based on the ABW (Activity-Based Working) methodologies, in which employees don’t “own” a desk. Throughout the day, they attend various workspaces depending on the tasks they are doing.

The Edge’s app also remembers how each employee likes their coffee and even their preferred temperature and level of light. This enables everything to be ready in order to work in the best possible conditions.

Productivity and efficiency in the building itself

The Edge is also the greenest building in the world, according to the British rating agency BREEAM. Energy efficiency is a bare minimum goal of smart buildings. By monitoring the use of electricity and water, Smart Buildings optimise the performance of all their systems. Therefore making them highly energy efficient.

In the case of The Edge, the LED lighting system (designed specifically for the building by Philips) is equipped with 30,000 sensors. These continuously measure occupancy, movement and lighting levels allowing it to automatically adjust energy use. As a result, The Edge uses 70% less electricity than comparable office buildings in terms of size and activity.

Humidity or temperature levels are also constantly measured. The building’s systems respond and adapt to maximise efficiency. The resulting data are then analysed with big data to study future improvements.

Although none quite so bold as the Deloitte office, a growing number of companies are introducing smart technology into their facilities. The Smart Living Plat figures indicate that the smart building sector will experience an annual growth rate of around 30% in the coming years. And the Unwork consultancy estimates global spending on smart building systems to reach $17 billion by 2019.

The numbers are there to justify these trends: the world population expected to live in towns and cities should reach 5 billion by 2030. As a result, the planet will face numerous challenges in terms of sustainability. Smart buildings are one of the solutions in order to reach some of the UN goals to reduce energy consumption.

Images | iStock/Vasyl DolmatoviStock/Jacob Ammentorp LundiStock/jacoblundUnsplash/Alesia Kazantceva