Owen Williams, director of smart building solutions at LMG looks at the IoT-enabled return to the office.

Two years spent working in kitchens and living rooms have altered how workers want the office to look and feel. Exceeding these changing expectations is a priority for property developers and office landlords. So far, the return to the office has got off to a sluggish start, despite Microsoft research revealing that 50% of leaders say their company requires, or plans to require, full-time in-person work in 2022.

How can office landlords re-design and re-create the office in a way that appeals to employees sufficiently enough to entice them back to the office? Smart buildings, powered by 'IoT’ and other technology, stand out as clear solutions. They vastly improve the user experience by personalising spaces and making systems such as lighting, heating and indoor air quality (IAQ) effortless.

IoT investment is growing at an unstoppable pace. According to the CBI, there were 7.6 billion active IoT devices globally last year. At the end of 2030, there will be 24.1 billion, and much of this investment is going into making corporate real estate smarter and more efficient. But what are the challenges of implementing these systems, and how can they be overcome?

IoT’s arrival in the office

We often associate IoT with features at home – smart temperature control systems which make houses more energy efficient, or voice-operated TVs for a quality viewing experience. But the office is becoming a home away from home, as landlords invest in the growing IoT and technology offerings to make workspaces more comfortable and productive.

The pandemic placed a renewed focus on biosecurity in offices, as concerns about the spread of Covid-19 have left some employees hesitant to return. IoT has a crucial role to play in promoting safer office spaces. Sensors that monitor capacity can ensure that occupancy is kept at a safe level, especially important given the emergence of new variants of the virus. IAQ sensors keep an eye on ventilation, which is known to be a significant factor in reducing the spread of the virus indoors.

According to a study this year by the Chartered Institute of Management, 80% of managers surveyed said their companies had adopted hybrid working. Managers can no longer insist on five days in the office and ignore the benefits afforded by the hybrid model, such as improving work-life balance to reducing commuting costs. IoT is one way to ensure a smooth hybrid delivery. Sensors linked to hot desk booking systems, for example, mean employees don’t need to work the typical 9-5 to ensure they get a desirable spot in the office.

An improved employee experience

For both hybrid workers and full-time office employees, it can often be the little things that make office life frustrating. IoT reduces maintenance mishaps and makes for a more seamless experience. Tedious tasks are automated in smart buildings, saving time and resources, for example smart printers that order new ink when they are running low, or simple-to-use temperature and lighting controls.

When teams feel disconnected from each other, we start to notice the downsides of hybrid work, and tackling this requires strong connectivity. There are innovative developments in smart AV technology to facilitate hybrid work experiences, such as smart cameras with wide angle lenses and sensors that move to frame different participants more naturally.

Ensuring that employees can connect to each other properly from outside the office is vital, and a responsibility for office landlords too. When smart technology and IoT systems work effectively, they reduce the stresses sometimes associated with the office, and in turn, improve employee wellbeing.

The data to inform a better return to the office

All these IoT devices are collecting data about how occupants are using workspaces. The future of the office remains uncertain, and office landlords are using this information to prepare for the ‘next normal’ in a more informed way.

For instance, occupancy sensors track how many employees are using the office space, and whether parts of the office space are being used more often than others. This prompts more informed user-led office design that reflects how work is actually done and ensures employees are productive, comfortable and supported.

Shiny new smart gadgets are pulling facilities managers in, and rightly so. The problem is that these technologies are often siloed from each other, meaning facilities managers are not getting a birds-eye-view of how their smart buildings are performing.

Integrated IoT solutions

The challenge, then, becomes how to integrate these technologies. Sensors are often managed by multiple specialist contractors, meaning their data and maintenance is siloed. What happens when an incident occurs, or a device fails? The maintenance costs shoot up, and it takes longer for a problem to be fixed, potentially ruining the occupant experience.

Facilities managers must consider how to centralise data collected from sensors and devices. Smart buildings are only truly ‘smart’ when these features are properly integrated. Solutions are starting to arise to tackle this issue, such as IoT gateways that can be used to connect third-party sensors to the user’s IP network. These can be connected to cloud-based software, so that all sensors can be monitored in one place. This means that information from IoT sensors can be shared with landlord and tenant apps when needed, whether that’s to report on energy usage or to make a case for the role of the office.

IoT tools should also be easy to integrate and able to support a wide range of wireless and wired protocols. Different companies have different requirements for the office, and so the offering needs to be flexible. A platform that allows facilities managers to quickly upgrade or add new tools to improve the office experience is going to be crucial to responding actively to the needs of occupants.

The future of the smart office

With workplace occupancy rates widely reported to be as low as 27% in the UK, there is a long way to go before we can declare a full ‘return to the office’. Office landlords face fierce competition for tenants, so their buildings need to be more appealing and user-friendly than ever before.

Smart building and IoT technology enables the built environment to play a role in improving employee wellbeing. Smart technology provides the tools for hybrid working and allows occupants to control and personalise their space. When these tools are properly integrated, and their data can be viewed in one place, facilities managers can start to use data from IoT to get a better understanding of how their spaces are operating.

Employees are driving these changes: from hybrid working to more homely workspaces, leaders have had to abandon a return to business as usual when it comes to the office. Smart offices are the way forward, and maybe, they’ll make our ways of working smarter too.