How smart buildings help the return to work

By Kas Mohammed, VP of Digital Energy at Schneider Electric

As lockdown restrictions ease, more workers are returning to the workplace. Over the past few months, the concept of an office has altered past the point of return – open-plan offices and hot-desking suddenly look more risky than revolutionary, busy is bad and airflow isn’t just positive, it’s necessary.

As well as the new logistical demands, employers have a raft of other key considerations before they can welcome back employees. Fundamentally, they must take care of employee’s wellbeing by putting every available safeguard in place. This includes developing workplace strategies that meet the individual demands, enabling social distancing, and effectively and consistently communicating any updates with employees.

While safety is the current priority, companies cannot lose sight of the wellbeing, productivity and development of their employees. While HR professionals have traditionally relied on verbal feedback, smart building technology, from sensors to software, will now play a vital role in creating a safe and productive workforce. With the help of modern technology, that can monitor and control occupancy, comfort, energy usage and improve communication, HR directors and management teams can effectively make office spaces safe and sustainable, while improving the health, happiness and productivity of employees.

Empowering communication & connectivity

Many people are concerned and anxious about being in or travelling to workplaces. A recent study of 2,000 adults commissioned by Bupa Health Clinics found as many as 65% of people in the UK are anxious about returning to their office. Another report from the TUC, showed that 39% of UK workers are concerned about their ability to socially distance from colleagues. Clearly, workplaces need to become smarter and more flexible to cater to the new realities.

However, one crucial piece of the puzzle is often ignored. A business can implement all the health and safety strategies available, but without effective communication they risk being ignored or misunderstood, with employees losing trust over time.

Employees need clear communication of how a business is going to support their physical and mental health. Each of these pieces of advice or instruction will be different depending on a huge range of factors – from home location, commuting route and age, to role and responsibility and even desk position.

To improve employee communication and provide instant access to workplace information, businesses are increasingly turning to fully customisable, centralised mobile applications. Such apps, linked to building technology, can send automatic and personal updates to employees on everything from parking restrictions, desk changes, densely populated zones, meeting room bookings, comfort controls, transport issue and more, all on a single platform. Furthermore, administrators and HR departments gain the ability get instant feedback on strategies, usage and services, to greatly improve decision-making.

Managing a flexible workforce

The return to work is likely to put greater stress on the office environment, with flexible shifts and hours becoming more common. This widely considered tactic aims to reduce the large numbers of people travelling at peak times and therefore the spread of infection.

A number of high-profile businesses, including Facebook and Google, have already employed large scale flexible work schemes. In light of the environmental impact, with lower levels of pollution and energy use from fewer commutes, some are touting an end of the traditional office.

However, there is research that suggests that remote working is not for everyone – according to a survey from the Society for Human Resources, 71% of us are struggling to adjust to remote work, 65% say maintaining employee morale has been a challenge, and more than a third are facing difficulties with company culture.   

Clearly there are positives and negatives on either side of the argument, with individual circumstances determining the best course of action. Fundamentally, an effective level of personal, instant and ongoing management requires a smart, connected building management system.

Modern digital office management systems provide HR departments with the ability to understand the real-time and long term uses of spaces with the office to improve comfort, enhance productivity, and reduce facility service costs.

Creating safe zones, improving flow, flagging vacating desks and updating on numbers, is all automatically and instantly fed to office admin teams to ensure safety, comfort and efficiency. Without micro-managing or dictating rigid policies, these teams can effectively manage their workforce from afar, gaining unparalleled insight on activity.

Understanding roles and skills development

Talent is the single biggest cost for most businesses, with attracting and retaining the best candidates proving challenging at the best of times. Environment, well-being, flexibility and sustainability credentials all play a vital part in keeping employees engaged, positive and productive.

However, in the post-coronavirus age, concerns around skill and career development have risen up the agenda. As almost all HR departments and multiple studies will attest, ensuring employees are engaged and motivated is extremely challenging from a distance, even more so with the current air of uncertainty.


Adapting to employees’ skills, expectations, and demands will be critical to building operating-model resilience. Organisations must work to find out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions and match those workers to new roles and activities. It is vital leaders have to ability to reskill, upskill and promote their employees to deliver growth.

Again, technology holds the key to understanding and adapting to your workforce. Creating applications in which employees can provide feedback on their role help to deepen their connection with the company and gain a greater understanding of their career paths. As we shift to a new way of working, career development will need to follow suit and become more instant, tangible and digital.

Build Back Better

Society and business have passed the point of no return. We are entering a new age, where data, automation and connected technology will play a fundamental role not just in manufacturing and IT, but in workforce management, engagement, safety and development.

Data combined with the latest technology hold the key. We must create a smarter workplace with joined-up systems allowing us to monitor and automate key processes, including staff seating and office access based on capacity and occupancy levels.

Modern office management technology can ensure that social distancing is maintained by ensuring employees are located appropriately in agreed zones (enabling lighting/heating, etc. to be switched off or reduced in areas that aren’t occupied). It can determine the best office flows to minimise unnecessary contact and ensure these are being followed. Vacated desks can be flagged and cleaned as soon as they are vacated, while fresh air is pumped during the hours required or when levels drop below a certain point in specific areas.

As crucially, smart office technology enables effective communication with, as well the management and understanding of, a workforce. We have to come to appreciate the role these abilities play in creating a healthy, comfortable work environment and a more enjoyable and productive workplace – now is the time to build our workplaces back better with smart, connected technology at its foundation.

Follow this link to find out more about the EcoStruxure Engage Enterprise App.

Author: Editorial Team

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