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    The connected office is flexible

    Scalable systems and the office of the future, part 1


    Interoperability is key for smart systems to achieve their tremendous potential. But an “ecosystem approach” to the Internet of Things (IoT), as important as it is, isn't quite enough. Also crucial is the ability to scale. Systems need to be able to grow and take on greater levels of complexity as the needs of the businesses, cities and other organizations they serve change. Equipped with a system that can scale up with a minimum of friction, an organization can deploy basic or critical capabilities in a specific area or property now, when it needs them, and add new scope and capabilities as schedules and budgets dictate or as future needs require.
     

    Scalability in smart systems is a concept whose time has come. The industry was already trending in this direction, but the pandemic has introduced at least three factors that are accelerating interest and adoption.
     

    First, there's the way the pandemic changed how we work, driving many of us out of our offices and into our homes—where, we found, it was quite possible to get our jobs done, thanks to the latest versions of connected technology. All of a sudden the old work model—according to which we commuted to an office each morning and commuted home again in the evening—stopped seeming quite so inevitable.
     

    Which is not at all to say that the office is “over.” Far from it. The office is too valuable—as a space for “radical collaboration” and team building, and as the physical embodiment of organizational identity, among other things—simply to fade away. But organizations will have to start rethinking the mission of the office, and as they do so, experimentation and trial and error will be key. Scalable smart systems can enable such experimentation, softening the effects of error and supporting operational flexibility that will help the next generation of the office emerge.
     

    Second, the commercial property recession that the pandemic touched off has made real estate owners sensitive to the value of what they own—including, of course, large office buildings that sat largely empty while employees were under orders to stay at home. Commercial property owners and tenants are now rethinking their office footprints, often scaling down the space allocated to desks and other individual workspaces to account for the shift to hybrid work models. This is potentially a boon for companies that can lower their overhead by shrinking the total amount of office space they must pay for and manage.
     

    Interest in green building initiatives and zero-carbon retrofits isn't new. The green office phenomenon has been gathering momentum for years now, in line with the growing urgency around climate change and other environmental crises. The pandemic has intensified this trend, too, as office property owners have realized that such green initiatives can boost property values. Green office spaces can also serve as strategic assets that strengthen a company’s brand and attract top talent. Smart scalable systems are uniquely suited to help make offices greener.
     

    Third, and in a way that relates to the second point, the pandemic has made workers and business owners more aware of the environments they traditionally spend so much time inhabiting, especially indoor ones—how they can affect human health and well-being—for better or for worse.
     

    More than ever, employees want to feel good at the office—as good as they feel working at home, if not better—and they also want to feel safe. Employers need to keep in mind that safety has as much to do with an employee’s feelings of confidence and security as it has to do with specific cleaning, disinfection, and occupancy control measures. Employers who can provide wholesome workspaces that bolster not just physical health but mental and emotional health as well will have an advantage workers return to the offices they anxiously vacated in the spring of 2020, even if they work from those offices only part of the time. Scalable smart tech can help create such workspaces.

    Flexibility and hybridity. Sustainability and green initiatives. Well-being and health. This series of articles takes a look at the important role that scalable systems will play in reshaping the workspace in each of these domains.

    The hybrid and flexible office—and the benefits of scalability


    There was once one dominant model of office work, and it looked like this:
     

    Each morning employees commuted, one way or another, to offices located one distance or another from the places where they lived. They spent a defined number of hours in these offices before commuting home in the evening.
     

    Then the next day, they did it all over again.
     

    The repetition amounted, for better or worse, to a predictable pattern, which was good for planning. Employees knew where they would be going each day, and for how long; the organizations that employed them knew how much space they'd need to provide, and of which type.
     

    That model has long been under pressure, in part because of the emergence of technology that makes working remotely almost indistinguishable from working on site. The pandemic, by proving just how viable remote working can be, has intensified the pressure to an unprecedented degree. Never before has there been so much attention paid to workplace transformation, paired with so much willingness to change. But fundamental structural and conceptual change will take time. Fully articulating a new model will no doubt prove to be a long-term task. Still, while the details of what the new world of work will look like remain to be seen, we can still draw some broad inferences about the world we're heading into.
     

    First of all, the office isn't “over,” as some of industry-watchers predicted during the peak of the pandemic-driven lockdowns. The viability of remote working is now undeniable—but it isn’t effective for every kind of work or every kind of interaction. If properly designed, with the right capabilities and intelligence, the office can offer experiences that remote working simply cannot, and it can become a destination worth travelling for.
     

    For the new model to be effective, it must combine the advantages of remote work and the advantages of in-office work and improve the experience of both. Among the many benefits the office brings are team spirit and the opportunity for collaborative creativity, which will become even more important to organizations as artificial intelligence takes over so much operational work decades ahead. Among the benefits remote work brings are lifestyle and schedule flexibility, convenience, and the sheer physical and emotional comfort that we associate with our own personal environments. At its best, the new-model office will allow us to have our cake and eat it too.
     

    Some experts believe that some companies will view a new hybrid approach as a benefit in itself, on par with vacation days, performance bonuses, and low-interest loans--but even more personalized based on employee preferences. Employers may lure potential talent with calibrated mixtures of in-office and remote work. They may promise, for instance, to let this top executive work from a mountain ski-house throughout a particularly snowy winter; or allow that in-demand technician to perform her duties from her beach property, attending an agreed-upon number meetings at company headquarters in a far-off city over the course of the year.
     

    At the risk of being obvious, tomorrow's model will reflect a new definition of “being at work.” That phrase will no longer denote uninterrupted physical presence in an office from 9 to 5. “At work” will lose its spatial connotations and come to mean a mode of activity, no longer tethered to a specific physical environment. If virtual attendance at meetings and other work functions hasn't already lost its stigma as the “office as a service” era gathers steam, it soon will.

    The office as a fluid matrix


    How will the office physically change to reflect the new culture of work? Nobody can yet say for sure, but it’s possible to make some informed predictions.
     

    However things play out, the guiding principle will be flexibility. Office space will become reconfigurable, fluid, and cross-functional. Consider an organization who grants their employees  a significant percentage of “flex time” during which they're allowed to work from home if they want to. Sometimes they won't want to—perhaps when school is out for the summer and kids take over the house, or because they’re simply fed up with sitting home alone. Unless there are strict rules or a published schedule that determine when certain cohorts are allowed in the office, the daily density of employees on site will be unpredictable. Offices will have to change quickly to accommodate daily (or even hourly) occupancy changes, through the use of modular equipment that can be swiftly configured. When there are few people in the office—for example, during the summer months when many employees are on holiday or need to be home to look after children who are not in school—the space allocated for individual workstations can be reconfigured to become group meeting areas or attractive spaces for socializing. It may even be preferable for some employers to shut floors or areas of floors down completely, saving on electricity, lighting, HVAC, and so on. Smart systems that can keep track of office occupancy and usage patterns historically and in real time will become important sources of data so that employers can load-balance their office spaces effectively.
     

    It's not just spaces for individual work that will be flexible. A reception area might turn into an environment perfect for group exercise sessions in the evening. A courtyard might transform into a venue for company-sponsored events that were traditionally held at considerable expense in rented banquet halls or executive centers. In some cases, employees can take more ownership of their workspaces by making recommendations on how different spaces should be reconfigured.
     

    Such built-in flexibility will allow companies to provide the sorts of amenities that attract talent. Working from home for more than a year has created a whole new set of expectations for many workers. HR departments might find that the ability to offer a “trophy workplace” is more important than ever.

    Scalable systems: built to grow


    Scalable smart systems will play a key role in facilitating the emergence of the flexible, hybrid office.
     

    Consider the many things that can be done for the future version of the office by sensor-equipped, data-driven lighting systems that are integrated into IoT.
     

    Smart lighting can benefit the emerging hybrid office merely by the fact that it uses LED technology, which is far more efficient than conventional illumination. Lighting-related energy savings cut costs, allowing those funds to be reallocated.
     

    But LED tech isn't only energy-efficient. It can also specifically support flexibility and adaptability in the workplace. Many LED luminaires are tunable, making flexible scene-setting possible. Managers can use different lighting recipes to give a single office space different identities: one recipe for the space in its capacity as a communal workspace, another in its capacity as an event space, and so on.
     

    LED lighting can also be personalized by individual employees who need specific conditions in their working environments. An older person might prefer brighter light, while the twenty-something who uses the same desk on another day might prefer softer light. Employees of any age might prefer extra doses of vivifying blue light in the morning, and redder light toward the end of the workday to help them start to unwind. Personalization of this sort lets various employees feel that a shared workspace is “theirs” for the extent of time that they're occupying it. Given the new diversity of the workforce, this function will be invaluable.
     

    Smart lighting systems will also support the hybrid office by offering a strong point of entry into the IoT and the ability to scale up over time. Connected lighting systems serve as natural platforms for distributing sensing technologies that deliver important insights into how people are occupying and using workspaces. Motion sensors, occupancy sensors, daylighting sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, and others can collect information for insight, analysis, planning and forecasting, letting management make adjustments to the working environment and layout whenever necessary.
     

    With an open systems approach and published APIs, connected lighting functions can be integrated with, say, a building's HVAC systems, extending flexibility to the way the building is heated and cooled. For example, sensors could automatically raise the shades on a building’s sunlit side, flooding the workspace with natural light. At the same time, the system could dial down lighting and heating, saving energy while simultaneously supporting the health and well-being of employees.
     

    Flexibility in lighting and climate control are only two of the many, many capabilities that smart systems can bring to the office. One important advantage of a scalable system is its future readiness. Building owners or tenants can start small, with foundational functions like basic lighting, then add more advanced and data-enabled capabilities, such as people counting and indoor wayfinding, over time. Organizations can pilot new features in a limited deployment and work the kinks out before rolling them out company-wide. Or they can implement IoT features in accordance with a multiple-year plan, keeping costs within annual budgets while remaining on the cutting edge as the global economy recovers.
     

    New functions and capabilities will certainly be developed as the requirements and amenities of the new flexible workspace become more clear. When these new functions are ready, they too can be added seamlessly into the existing system without requiring a complete teardown and reinstallation.
     

    As businesses rethink the meaning and function of the physical workspace, intelligent experimentation and calculated risk-taking will be crucial. Scalable systems support such experimentation while managing the risks inherent in adopting new ways of working. Such is the power of scalability.

    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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