Richard Morris, director at technologywithin, looks at how tech-enabled solutions make for smarter wellbeing, work and revenue

Before the coronavirus pandemic emerged, it was a widely recognised trend that technology was playing a greater role in all areas of our lives than ever before. However, since the virus struck, that trend has only accelerated – not least as social distancing means an unprecedented amount of both our professional and our personal lives migrating online.

The impact of this trend has been particularly acute when it comes to buildings. Needless to say, during the lockdown at the time of writing, many office buildings lie empty. But it is important not to lose sight of the innovations we saw before the pandemic and will continue to see after it passes – from the rise of new, modern methods of construction, to the increasing roll-out of tech-enabled buildings.

And this trend wasn’t just limited to the supply side. The demand – from investors, property owners and tenants – was for buildings to be no longer simply about bricks and mortar, but instead for them to have strong connectivity and technology-enabled solutions at their heart.

Going forward, as coronavirus leads to unprecedented adoption of remote working whilst we nonetheless look forward to life after lockdown, businesses are likely to become even more aware of the importance of ensuring office-based and at-home staff are better connected. And this will be thought of not only in terms of productivity and a company’s bottom line, but also in terms of employee wellbeing.

In short, smart buildings are becoming the new normal.

Getting connected

As is clear from the increasing shift of most companies’ internal and external communications to being online, connectivity is crucial to all modern businesses.

Indeed, four fifths (81%) of commercial real estate (CRE) tenants believe that a well-connected office leads to better business performance. In particular, those surveyed said that they felt this can be achieved by enhancing communication channels, not least through features such as strong internet connections and super-fast broadband.

And the impact of poor-connectivity on productivity is striking. For example, a recent survey of 1000 SMEs by Zen found that that the average worker could waste up to 72 minutes a day because of tech issues and unreliable internet connections.

Supporting wellbeing

Smart buildings make for healthier workplaces also. In fact, according to a recent report from Savills, cleanliness, lighting and air quality are some of the most important factors in the ideal workplace, with an uncomfortable physical environment also liable to have significant impacts for employee wellbeing.

So it is not surprising, given this context, that new technologies have emerged that enable tenants to better and more efficiently manage their needs and preferences.

And streamlining connectivity can undoubtedly be vital to reducing the everyday stresses of office-based work. In particular, with a range of devices ever more present in our lives, people have come to expect interoperability across their screens - from computers to tablets and phones, in order to achieve greater efficiency and support flexible working styles.

And lest anyone be in any doubt as to the connection between workplace and wellbeing, Forbes has found that two-thirds of people experienced work-related burnout last year.

But by empowering tenants to more effectively tailor the physical work environments to their needs and preferences, smart building technology can significantly enhance people’s mental and physical health.

In fact, studies have repeatedly highlighted the importance of ‘job control’ to wellbeing. One way to achieve this is to give people greater autonomy in how they complete their work, but a second meaningful way to provide a sense of influence is to empower people with control over their work environment, for example through climate management apps.

Effective room booking software can also provide people with not only good access to meeting rooms, private work areas and breakout spaces, but also a much greater sense of agency that allows them to take control over their setting and further enhance their productivity.

Other notable tech-enabled solutions include sophisticated lighting systems, which can recreate natural sunlight or tailor lighting levels to people’s personal and occupational needs. And let us not forget temperature and air quality sensors – aspects which can improve the comfort of the workplace and, therefore, the physical and mental health and productivity of employees.

Maximising returns

Smart buildings can also be key to maximising revenue for building owners and investors, as these environments are increasingly sought-after by discerning tenants.

Indeed, buildings certified by WiredScore, an industry recognised standard for the connectivity of a building, are able to charge a 5% ‘digital premium’ on London leases. Moreover, Cluttons have found that 78% of landlords have been able to achieve rent increases and 72% have been able to reduce voids in occupancy rates, both through improved connectivity.

Advances in data collection within buildings can also help improve revenue, by delivering a much better understanding of issues such as people flow and energy consumption, which can be used to reconfigure space use and inform future planning. Indeed, drawing on such data-driven insights can also reduce a building’s environmental impact, which can in turn attract more sustainably-minded tenants and reduce costs – a double dividend.

So it seems clear that whilst the coronavirus crisis is obviously reducing office footfall in the short term, investing in smart buildings will continue to add value to landlords, operators and tenants alike in the long term.

In fact, in an even more tech-enabled post-coronavirus world, smart buildings look likely to be the route to ensuring the future viability of buildings as workplaces at all.