Simon Ward, director of sales, UK & Ireland – Distech Controls says that the recent pandemic has made us far more aware of the buildings we work in and the importance of being in healthy, properly ventilated spaces. Many of us have become comfortable with a new way of working, setting up home offices and mastering the art of virtual meetings, but, as restrictions are lifted and we return to the ‘new norm in the office, he asks, how do we know our workplace is safe and healthy?

Many business leaders are starting to contemplate a full or partial return to the office post-pandemic. However, the prospect of returning to the office brings up a range of reactions, from relief and excitement to fear and hesitation. Employees made significant changes to their behaviour and ways of working during the pandemic, which has increased their sense of perceived safety and letting go of those feelings and behaviours will not be immediate. For instance, the American Physiological Society reports that a full 48% of vaccinated adults are hesitant to return to in-person contact.

Many organisations are planning a phased return to the office, with a new hybrid way of working. Employees want to know that their workplace is safe, that measures have been taken to reduce the spread of infection, that the space is clean, they will be alerted to any problems and that they can have control over their own environment.

There are also certain trends that will impact how people return including a new digitally savvy generation entering the workplace, the developments in technology, a culture of flexibility and the need to be mobile.

Due to these changes and forward-thinking trends, there is an acceptance that organisations will have to invest in their building stock and upgrade their facilities to provide safe environments for their staff. Using enhanced technologies can send a powerful signal to employees that their wellbeing is a priority, while at the same time creating opportunities for future improvement.

In the first instance, there are a number of pro-active measures that we can put in place to make our buildings safer. These include managing indoor air quality, detecting occupied spaces, mastering infection control, providing contactless comfort management, ensuring social distancing and identifying people that can have safe access to the building.

Let’s look at air quality first. ASHRAE has published a guide for re-opening commercial buildings and has created four key elements building owners should do – increase the ventilation rate, increase rate of air renewal, use HEPA filtration and eradicating viruses and bacteria in HVAC Systems.

Once the air quality has been considered, we need to look at how we manage the spaces. With shared spaces becoming more common it’s important to know who is using a space and when, especially for cleaning purposes. The room and desk presence detectors, which record in real time if a space/desk is occupied and keep a record of occupancy over time, allow the Facility Manager to know the occupancy rate of the building dynamically or over a period as well as to plan which offices/spaces are to be disinfected in priority. The Distech Controls EC-Multi-Sensor-BLE features a motion detector, light sensor, temperature sensor and a Bluetooth Low Energy transceiver that together enable the wireless control of comfort settings in building spaces.

Occupants need to feel comfortable as well as safe in their working environment and providing them with control over the space is important. With the latest generation of wall sensors and thermostats, such as the Allure UNITOUCH from Distech Controls, you no longer need to touch the equipment on the wall to personalise occupant comfort. Its 3.5”, high-resolution capacitive touchscreen is easy to view and simple to use, allowing for the control of a wide range of HVAC, lighting, and sunblind applications using a single device. Furthermore, this communicating sensor allows for the wireless control of comfort from a mobile phone by using Bluetooth low energy technology.

To ensure social distancing, people counting sensors can be a good tool to employ.​ In the context of a smooth return to the office, the data collected by this type of sensor (number of people per zone) can be used to ensure that the density of people per area is within social distancing guidelines.​

How can we try to provide access to building to healthy persons only?​ ​Providing an oximeter at the entrance to the building and encouraging occupants to test their blood oxygen levels may be a good, inexpensive way to prevent asymptomatic patients from entering a building.​ Another technique deals with infrared cameras, generally placed at the entrance of buildings, allow the detection of feverish people.​ We also need to easily identify people who have COVID. As soon as the infected person becomes aware of it, it would be advisable to warn people who have been in contact with the infected person in the last 15 days. ​These individuals could then be asked to go and get tested in turn, and to quarantine themselves in order to prevent the spread of the virus. ​This is now possible, thanks to the infrastructure used for the indoor positioning platforms. ​Data can be saved, temporarily and securely, to allow occupants to be notified if necessary.

It’s important to be open with employees and this can be delivered by providing a mix of information in an easy-to-read dashboard, ​available at the entrance to the building or directly from the building occupant's phone. The dashboard could include the procedures that are put in place on the premises, for example dis-infection routine and social distancing rules, or a simplified view of the status of the BMS with information such as showing the ventilation is working optimally. A digitalised floorplan could be utilised and enhanced with a new type of POI (Point of Interest) to make them interactive and allow people, in real time, to visualise the information specific to safe movement and occupancy of the premises. ​

The key is to bring as much of the building data together, in one place, as possible. This is where open protocols combined with APIs, such as RESTful API, can be vital. With RESTful API and the open Internet Protocol (IP), communication between devices becomes easier and you can achieve a fully integrated system. By using a RESTful API interface systems integrators can enable IT web services to easily interact with software applications. Distech Controls has a RESTful API embedded into a range of its solutions, including the ECLYPSE series.

Providing occupants with all the data they need to feel comfortable and safe in their office is vital. Clearly demonstrating the measures you have in place as well as giving them autonomy over their workspace goes a long way to alleviating any concerns they have. When people feel like they have choice and control over various aspects of their physical work environment and are aware of the status of their environment it leads to greater satisfaction overall. There are also knock-on benefits. Improving indoor air quality may boost cognitive abilities as well as health as ​low air quality can interfere with workers’ productivity​.