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    Smart buildings are strategic assets

    A conversation featuring Forrester analyst Michele Pelino

    In early March, I interviewed Michele Pelino, Principal Analyst Serving Infrastructure & Operations Professionals at independent research firm, Forrester, about current trends in smart buildings and IoT-enabled workspace design. We had planned to meet at Light + Building where Michele was to have been our guest speaker at the event in Frankfurt, Germany, but then COVID-19 interfered, and we spoke online instead.


    It was early days for the pandemic, so we didn’t know at the time how thoroughly disrupted the workplace would be—not only in the US, where Pelino and I were located, but all over the world. We were at the very beginning of the widespread office closures and lockdowns that would make the workplace more virtual than ever before, driving interactions for many onto online collaboration platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams.


    Several months along, it has become abundantly clear that work, and the workplace, will never be the same. The remote working experience has been decidedly mixed, but many employees have come to value the flexibility, the extra time and money saved by not having a commute, and the potential for a better work/life balance. Many employers, too, are seeing value in the virtual, especially as online communications tech is now reliable and high-bandwidth enough to make remote team management a viable alternative to the traditional on-site working model. Some companies envision significant reductions in corporate real estate costs and related expenses by having a smaller in-person workforce—or none at all—as well as reductions in energy usage and emissions that may help them achieve ambitious sustainability targets.


    It is also abundantly clear that the corporate workplace is not going away any time soon. Some work must be done on site and in person, and there is still value in groups of workers coming together safely for important meetings, brainstorming sessions, and team-building activities. How the on-site-vs.-remote balance ultimately settles out remains to be seen, and will likely vary for different employers in different industries and regions.


    Nevertheless, one thing is certain: connected systems, and the IoT applications that sit on top of them, will become more and more important for employers to achieve workplace flexibility, safety, efficiency, and differentiation. The trends that we discussed in March have not been invalidated by the pandemic and the need to adjust to a post-pandemic reality. On the contrary, some have been accelerated, as companies can no longer wait to implement the smart workplace capabilities that they require to attract and retain top talent and to get the most from them while they are on site.


    Following are five topics around smart workplace trends that Pelino and I discussed, with some updates based on Forrester research published between April and July of 2020.

    Michele Pelino, Forrester

    From the perspective of the built environment, we’re seeing a focus on initiatives to ensure that employees can be as productive and efficient as possible on site.”

    - Michele Pelino, Forrester

    What are some current trends in employee productivity?

    “From the perspective of the built environment, we’re seeing a focus on initiatives to ensure that employees can be as productive and efficient as possible on site. That ties into the quality of the environment in which employees are working,” Pelino says.


    Employers working to maximize employee productivity need to ensure that there is appropriate light to perform different tasks, that the temperature in the workspace is comfortable, that noise levels are not distracting, and that employees can find available desks, conference rooms, and other resources as quickly and effectively as possible. Employees also benefit from capabilities that allow them to know where other employees are and to locate work areas that are going to help them be the most productive—whether that is an area where a few people are working together, or an area for independent focus. 


    In “IoT Solutions Transform Smart Buildings Into Strategic Productivity Assets,” a May 2020 Forrester report, Pelino and co-author Andrew Hewitt note that remote working will likely gain greater acceptance in the post-pandemic world. Employers will need to think not only about maximizing productivity when employees are working from home, but also about reducing their real estate footprints to account for a lower average density of on-site workers. While this may reduce real estate costs for some, companies will now have to think about how to ensure employee health and safety when they are on site. This may include sensor-based IoT applications that support social distancing, biometric monitoring to identify employees with fevers, and using software-based lighting management systems to safely utilize ultraviolet (UV-C) light for workplace disinfection.

    What’s the latest on healthy building certifications?

    “Companies are still focusing on LEED certification, and showing not just that their buildings are certified but also communicating that as a value proposition for employees who might consider working there,” Pelino says.

    Additional certifications, such as the WELL Building Certification v2, currently in pilot, encourage organizations to design for employee health. But the concept of the healthy building is now expanding to embrace climate health as well. “Many employees now think about the environment that they are working in at a broader level. Is the environment productive? Is it resource-efficient? What impact does it have on climate? Is it sustainable?” Pelino also points out that “certifications are becoming a differentiator for a building, as compared to a building next door that might not have those certifications.”


    The adoption of healthy building certifications is often tied to what the building is being used for. “Companies in the professional services sector want to be able to offer a differentiated experience to consulting and professional services personnel who may be spending significant hours in a building,” explains Pelino. “Healthcare and pharma companies recognize that the building experience has to be a certain way, because of the potential impact patient experience or on pharmaceutical tests and trials.”

    What role do you see for the IoT?

    One of the most important trends that Pelino is now seeing is “a growing recognition of buildings as strategic assets.” Sensor-enabled smart building solutions are key here, as building management moves beyond energy efficiency to include IoT-enabled capabilities that support productivity, employee health and safety, sustainability, and workplace flexibility.


    “The Internet of Things is not one type of thing or one type of solution,” Pelino says. “In a building, IoT can exist both within different processes—connected lighting, electrical systems, security and surveillance systems, even features such as elevators and escalators—and as a way of connecting different processes together.” The IoT thus becomes part of a building’s connected infrastructure.


    “The idea of an IoT solution is to connect assets, processes, and environments in a building using capabilities such as sensor networks to capture insight about what’s happening in real time,” Pelino continues. “Building managers can then use that insight to make changes automatically within the system, or to send out alerts based on operational events or environmental measurements.”


    And it’s not only the building managers who benefit. “Employees can also use IoT capabilities such as indoor location services to personalize and streamline their experience within the building as they move through their day. They can use IoT solutions to book conference rooms more efficiently, for example, or to understand in real time which rooms are available and offices are open.” Such capabilities will likely become even more important in the new normal of social distancing and increased sensitivity to health and safety issues on site.

    What is the case for or against biometrics?

    As pointed out above, biometric monitoring could help ensure workplace safety by identifying employees with fevers. But Pelino notes that questions about privacy come up quickly when thinking about the uses of biometrics in business workplaces.


    “Biometrics is more a part of the conversation in healthcare environments, where it’s more seen as a positive, or in certain kinds of manufacturing, for example, where chemicals or bad air quality can impact heart rates or breathing,” explains Pelino. “There are also interesting use cases in situations where a business has to conform to certain regulatory requirements.”


    Biometrics could be used to enhance a building’s security system, making it much more seamless for people to walk through a building and gain access to areas to which they have clearance. But again, Pelino points out, privacy questions come up quickly.


    “The technology is certainly available to do many, many things, but now it’s a question of stepping back and asking what is realistic, what is acceptable in terms of employee privacy and safety, and where do the use cases make sense.”

    Has the open plan office experiment failed?

    Open-plan workspace approaches have been getting some mixed reviews, with some studies indicating that open approaches can result in less collaboration and comfort, not more. But Pelino is quick to point out that asking if the experiment has failed is the wrong question.


    “To think about this in an either-or way is not the best approach. It’s better to think in terms of flexibility. Employers need to consider the different processes and activities in which employees are engaged in the work environment, and what they need to get their work done most efficiently and effectively.”


    An open plan approach may work in some cases—for example, if team members need to work collaboratively or if they need to be more accessible. But there may also be reasons why employees need to do individual work and really focus. “Organizations are starting to think about how to structure their office environment not based on some pre-determined plan or philosophy, but relative to the tasks and activities that their employees need to get done,” says Pelino. “They need to get the right balance of different types of workspaces, not just one extreme versus another.”


    Business sector also comes into play here. “If I’m in the professional services world, I might have different kinds of requirements than I would if I were in manufacturing or in healthcare or in retail,” Pelino says. “Businesses are more successful in creating the right workspace balance when they begin by thinking about what has to happen in that office environment. Then they can collect data and insight from the connected environment to evaluate how employees are performing most productively and effectively, where they are spending their time, and so on, and then use that information to incrementally improve the office environment to help the organization meet its goals.”

    About the author

    Jonathan Weinert, IoT and Connected Lighting, Signify
    Award-winning writer Jonathan Weinert has been been researching and reporting on LED lighting, connected lighting, and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008. 

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