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Built for speed

The Coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for ‘fast buildings’ says Richard Kauntze, Chief Executive, The British Council for Offices, which will speed up the development of the digital office

The world has spent the last twenty years getting faster. We expect faster cars, faster Wi-Fi, faster solutions – and we expect them to be seamless. In a world as obsessed with speed as ours, there is less and less room for the trial and error approach of old.

The same can be said of our workplaces. While it may seem odd to talk about the ‘speed’ of a building, by its very nature a stationary entity, doing so can provide a refreshed, and indeed a productive, framework for approaching how we improve the workplaces our sector builds.

In the battle of the buildings, a slow building is one where the environment is considered thermally ‘heavyweight’ – its very fabric can influence the temperature of the space over time. While there is certainly value in these slower, heavyweight contenders, the Coronavirus pandemic has strengthened the corner of their faster, lightweight opponents: those which use technology to adapt to the demands of the occupants’ needs on a more immediate basis.

This is, of course, driven by a new occupier – one which expects the office environment to be as technologically advanced, as quick, as seamless, as the world outside its front doors.

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, we were already seeing greater adoption of these faster models – developers and designers alike were beginning to explore the real possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the efficiency and the experience of the office. Smart sensors were already being introduced to measure levels of occupancy with greater granularity, to give the employee greater control over their workstation, and to make smarter decisions about office management.

But one very real consequence of the pandemic, the acceptance of a new, mixed way of working, where professional lives are split between the office and the home, accelerates the need for these faster buildings to be the new standard by which we hold ourselves accountable.

We are facing increased competition from people’s homes, and embracing technology in everything we do can help us deliver offices which work more effectively for workers. With the right building, people will want to be there not because they have to, but because they want to.

More pressing, perhaps, than the need to impress, is the need to keep the UK workforce safe. It’s no secret that workers up and down the country are apprehensive about returning to their offices. Recent independent polling(1) commissioned by the BCO found that one in five (20 per cent) UK adults plans primarily to work from home in the future, while 16 per cent hope that working from home replaces the office.

The uncertainty of the Coronavirus pandemic endures, and as lockdown guidance continues to ebb and flow, the onus is increasingly on landlords to convince occupiers that they can, and will, deliver safe spaces for their occupants.

This starts from the second employees leave their front doors. Most workers, understandably, aren’t prepared to take public transport until the virus is better controlled. Recent research by workspace provider The Argyll Club suggested that the main concern for London’s businesses post lockdown was whether employees can get to and from work safely(2).

While landlords and tenants alike have limited control over traffic flows and train capacity (although a wider acceptance of flexible hours would undoubtedly help), there are ways technology can be used to help make active commuting – cycling, walking, or running – as accessible as possible. Smart management systems are already available which will inform workers of available car parking spaces, smart lockers and way-finding for cyclists. Increased adoption of these technologies can help reassure workers that their workplace is on their side.

Greater integration of smart sensors, specifically to monitor levels of occupancy, will also play an essential role in protecting occupiers. While traditionally used to improve environmental efficiency – by reducing energy consumption when not needed – these technologies can be pivoted to ensure employees are following social distancing guidelines.

They can also provide facilities management teams with a more granular understanding of what spaces employees prefer to use, which can in turn improve how these teams organise new one- way systems and signpost safe floor space.

Add to this the long-awaited availability of track and trace apps, and occupiers will be able to integrate this data with their own management systems to protect employees should they be alerted of new or existing Coronavirus cases.

The use of Vertical transportation (VT) i.e. lifts and escalators will also need to be addressed during the pandemic(3). The most obvious management solution is to reduce the number of passengers that can use a lift car. Aside from organisational controls, digital solutions could include upgrading the control systems to allow for touchless operation via mobile phones, security access cards or foot-operated buttons. (Some manufacturers are offering facial recognition and voice operation interfaces, but these are not widely available.)

About Sarah OBeirne

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