Building Management

Smart Buildings and Healthier Workplaces – Overcoming the Challenges

Our partners at Worktech Academy, the world’s leading online knowledge platform and member network exploring the future of work, have created a series of ‘Kitchen Table Conversations’ between industry leaders. Recently, author, futurist, and CEO of Unwork, Philip Ross invited Laurent Bataille, our EVP of Digital Energy to discuss the future of the workplace. The following are a few highlights from their discussion, which also included smart buildings, IoT, and the importance of collaboration.

PR: Tell me what’s different about ‘digital energy’. What does that mean to people?

LB: Traditionally, a lot of industries and business have been about the equipment and products, and to a degree some integrated systems. But, more and more, we want to extract the intelligence from these products, bring them to a layer – whether it’s on the edge or on the cloud – to create great outcomes for customers. So that’s really the power of software, big data [and] the Internet-of-Things.

PR:   As organizations begin to think about returning to the office, it’s a very challenging time. So, what’s changed for organizations and those that are involved in provisioning for the workplace?

LB:   You’re right. These are very special times for building owners, operators, and users. When you have a crisis, to a degree, it comes in a series of waves. [During] lockdown we could really see the difference between buildings that are remotely operated – where people could still, for instance, curb their energy usage [and] manage their buildings remotely – [while] traditional buildings always need to dispatch people onsite [and] couldn’t operate when the buildings were closed. That was the wave of realization [that] the infrastructure isn’t as resilient as we’d like, and how much digital can transform the experience. Now we’re trying to come back to the office, [there are] a lot of constraints for the facility managers and operators to make sure there is the right social distancing, the right healthy environment for people to come back to the office. If we look forward, the third phase will be people revisiting their real estate structure to see that it’s a hybrid world [with] work from home and work from the office. How do [they] adapt to that?

PR:   What are the criteria stakeholders should look at and consider?

LB:   One is space management. It is important because of social distancing. How many people are going into meeting rooms, how many of my desks are actually utilized, how can you avoid people getting too close to each other in open spaces, and are they the right density? The second one is occupant well-being, making sure that operating conditions are favorable for people. One of the very obvious things is air quality. Do you have enough fresh air, ventilation, etc. The third one is occupant engagement. How do I make my office an exciting place to come back to? A number of tools help people collaborate and interact in a better manner, so they’re actually seeing more of the upside of being physically present at the office. And then we always have the important basics of operational efficiency. Remember, these are tough times for many building owners, so they really need to make sure they manage costs. They now have some cloud-based abilities to do that better. Also, to minimize disruptions [you need to manage] cleaning crews, using them minimally in the places really needed.

PR:   I like the way you described “remote control” … almost like the building having its own operating system.

LB:   What would really help transform the experience we have in buildings across all these categories is, not only to gather the data [but also] being able to drive insight from the data … and using that insight to drive how the building reacts. That’s really where you’re going to start seeing the autonomous building that adapts to its occupants. Today, we have a lot of the technology bricks to get there.

PR:   You talked a little bit about people, and their experience and their well-being. What do you think the average office occupant can expect to see from the data to help make them feel secure?

LB:   Traditionally with booking a meeting room, you might have a meeting for 8 people … and then all of a sudden you have 15 people showing up. The ventilation doesn’t adapt, because it stays on the same pre-determined schedule. We now have capabilities to have sensors that can count the number of people actually in the meeting [and] have an alarm on the mobile phone of the facility manager that there’s an issue with social distancing [as well as] have data pushed into the ventilation system to bring more fresh air. All that today is possible.

PR:   I have this vision I describe as ‘real-time real estate’, where everything is connected. Tell me about your clients that have begun to adopt this and your vision of digitizing their world.

LB:   A lot of tenants, [and the] company that occupies its own headquarters, have historically been pretty hands off; they consider their building almost as a commodity. I think some clients are now realizing they need to be more hands on, and work with technology consultants or design firms that really understand the full lifecycle. They understand the value of data, or they understand the war for talent and they’re thinking, “I need to make my building more differentiated.” And we’ve seen real estate developers who are thinking, of course, of their asset value.

PR:   Tell us about this idea of the touchless building that different people can experience in the future smart building.

LB:   After COVID is the notion of the resiliency of the building. Today, with existing technology, you can use your mobile phone as your access control badge to enter a building. You can control all of your [building] systems from your mobile phone. You don’t have to touch the thermostat on the wall, [avoiding] all the issues we know can be on the surfaces in terms of germs.

PR:   Unwork has developed the idea of the ‘smart building blueprint’, which is exactly that. I often think it’s the procurement process that kills the smart building, because too much is taken out when cost control comes in.

LB:   In all of the integrated projects we’ve done, surprisingly for some people, actually, are not more expensive than the de-integrated ones. So I agree we need to change the mindset and, for me, that’s where awareness is absolutely key.

I found the discussion fascinating as it related to what our real estate clients are concerned about as they return to their commercial buildings post-COVID-19. If you like it too, watch Laurent’s complete conversation with Philip Ross. To stay connected with Commercial Real Estate news and be part of our community, follow us on LinkedIn or visit our commercial real estate web page.


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