Gilbert Lennox-King, Symbiosy commercial director (U.K. & Western Europe), HB Reavis says that using smart building technology to map COVID working patterns will create better workspaces for everyone

Whilst most of us are still working from home, companies across the world are trying to understand what they need from office space in the future following the pandemic. For HB Reavis, an international workspace provider, COVID-19 has provided a chance to test and learn about our offices in real-time as the evolution of the pandemic saw most workers leave the office in March, but a sizeable number return by June.

The results combine data from our smart workplace platform ‘Symbiosy’, along with Microsoft analytics to understand how employees work both at home and then in the office – providing useful insight when considering methods of working and how to best use office space while keeping everyone safe.

Symbiosy is a smart buildings solution that enables data-driven workplace analytics for the occupier. This gives agency to teams to customise their workplace environment. We’ve benefited because Symbiosy was already operational in our London and Bratislava offices prior to the pandemic, and so we have been able to compare data and change our workspace to support a return to the office in the short-term, while also planning for the future.

Figure 1: Combining Microsoft analytics and indoor positioning data pre and post full lockdown at HB Reavis offices in Slovakia

A digital world versus the physical office

A simple analysis of emails and meetings shows the stark impact of the pandemic between February and July of this year. This data illustrates the impact on workflows, interactions, meetings and emails and shows a workforce transitioning to working remotely, before bouncing back.

On return to the office, tech such as occupation and density information enables employees to see in real-time that their environment is not only safe to work in, but is conducive to the type of work they want to achieve. They can book empty, clean meeting rooms, and can see whether the teams they want to collaborate with are present.

Live data, even as simple as these two metrics, are crucial to giving companies and their employees transparency on how space is performing – and gives them the tools and agency to make changes in real-time.

Social distancing is here to stay, and so is your office

In the current context, workplace density is the logical starting point for planning your office. Even in the medium- to long-term, the office must be able to support a socially distanced workforce, and occupiers need to be transparent about this to reassure employees. In our London office, areas were closed off and the physical layout was changed to enable 70% of the workforce to return to the office in June.

Symbiosy provides a live read-out of office capacity and flags densely populated zones on a mobile app and in-office display screens. Using this data has enabled us to begin long-term adjustments to the physical organisation of our offices and in response to COVID-19, we reduced overall office capacity, as well as the capacity of individual meeting rooms. In addition, we saw an increased use of focus rooms.

Figure 2: Images showing workplace density and capacity

Measuring air quality is now a key wellness indicator

Technology helps us improve employee wellbeing by empowering occupiers through data and gives employees the knowledge and ability to control their environment. We know the correct level of indoor humidity is key to lowering infective aerosolised viruses, and air quality improves overall productivity.

To help occupiers control their physical workspace and the office environment, our technology allows us to monitor air quality to show CO2 levels, temperature and humidity, and how these react to changes in office occupation. Previously our target for maximum CO2 levels in meeting rooms were set to be no higher than of 800 parts per million (ppm). As a direct result of learnings during the pandemic, we have increased fresh air flow and lowered this maximum level of CO2 to 600ppm to enhance the air quality and health for all employees.

Taken to its full potential, the tech can tailor the working environment to an individual – with heating, lighting and air quality preferences following an employee around the office for increased peace of mind and personalised comfort.

Figures 3,4,5; Occupiers can access real-time data on indoor air quality and can adjust as needed

Quick reactions: In-office contact tracing

We have also been able to intervene on a handful of occasions when an employee has been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19.

Our employees wear Bluetooth low-energy locating cards when using the office as part of the Symbiosy platform. This was originally intended to help measure office density, analyse usage of different types of spaces and help with meeting room bookings. However, it has proven extremely useful to assist HR departments in rapid contact tracing when made aware of a team member’s exposure. HR departments can assist the authorities and take extra precautions to protect staff above official guidelines and decide whether any areas of the office need deep cleaning as a result.

Different teams and different styles of working

By pairing smart workplace technology with existing tools such as Microsoft analytics these learnings can be taken further. Workspace providers need now more than ever to take into account how different teams, and different individuals work and use office space.

As shown by these images from Symbiosy, different teams use the office in very different ways, with the compliance team using a closed office most of the time and the development management team tending to use shared office space. These learnings combined with digital interaction analysis can help to schedule and coordinate teams as and when they return to the office in the future.

Figure 6: Data can show teams use different spaces and can inform long-term office and spatial planning

The future of the office is already here

We have seen from our offices that embedding technology has enabled us to not only return to the office safely and with confidence, but has provided insight into how our workspace functions, which meant we could react and make any changes necessary.

In these data-driven times we need to remember that systems designed to enhance physical and mental health, deliver collaborative working environments and provide less stressful days in the office should similarly protect individuals. Data systems must adhere to GDPR, while occupiers must also have in place consent-based systems and communicating the reasoning behind data collection to staff is paramount.

Technology must always be for the benefit of those interacting with it on a daily basis. For us, the next step is to focus on implementing new systems which foster deeper collaboration between teams and individuals to ensure that the office enhances productivity and team connections.

The future of the workplace is an increased focus on health, wellbeing and productivity, and happily we think it is already here.