Competition, employee expectations and new ways of working have driven adoption for a new type of workplace – the smart building. Smart buildings are those that utilise different technology systems to enhance the experience of occupants, sustain high levels of performance and reduce the costs of building operations. Thanks to smart buildings, the way in which businesses use their real-estate has radically changed over the past few years. Whereas, previously, firms treated their workplaces as an essential but expensive cost of doing business, they now appreciate how investments in their buildings can directly further corporate goals.

The evolving role of workplace data and practices

Rising real estate costs are forcing businesses to squeeze as much value from their office space as possible. To truly use their offices efficiently, however, companies need to understand where space is under-utilised and where improvements should be made. Typically, companies have gathered this information as they approach a relocation or lease expiry. Now, smart building technologies are enabling companies to capture data on the occupancy of their locations in real-time. This data can then be used to measure how effectively the space is being used and enable better decision-making by management.
Sensors that gauge how effectively companies are using their space are becoming increasingly widespread. Alex Pentland at MIT has pioneered ‘social physics’, the science of using large data sets captured from smartphones, wearables and Sociometric badges to measure how and when people interact and share ideas. This data can provide invaluable insight into what drives business successes in a company. In a study with an IT enterprise company, data captured by sociometric badges showed conclusively that the performance of the firm’s engineers was heavily impacted by the amount of time spent with one of a particular group of four colleagues. This data helped make the business aware to the risks that the loss of these ‘experts’ could have.
In order to capitalise on and increase the number of valuable interactions between employees, activity based working (ABW) and other agile models of workplace design have surged in popularity. ABW is an approach to office design in which employees transition between different settings according to the tasks they are doing, creating more opportunities for staff to interact. In some cases, including Samsung’s open-view, donut-shaped HQ in San Jose, entire buildings have been designed to encourage chance encounters. Incubator and accelerator spaces, where employees interact with partner companies and outside experts are also growing in popularity.
With the right facilities and tools to work more productively, a company’s workforce becomes a driver for growth. Realising this, companies are gradually overcoming traditional models of workplace design in favour of more dynamic, agile models that specialise in analytics and encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing. Models of workplace design based on non-assigned seating have allowed companies to open up considerable space savings while also increasing productivity, creativity and innovation.

Only the best

Workplaces play a crucial role in attracting and retaining the best talent, and companies are becoming increasingly aware of it. The competition for the best employees will become more marked as the global labour market contracts. Between 2015 and 2030, the world’s working age demographic will only grow at half the pace it did between 2000 and 2015. In the UK and other developed economies, demand for talent will outstrip the growth in supply, especially in the technology sector.
Furthermore, the dearth of skills will necessitate the growth of multi-generational workplaces, where workers of significantly differing ages work together. The share of older workers will increase significantly: By 2030, over 20 per cent of the global workforce will be above the age of 55. Even now, these trends are encouraging companies to invest in smart building technology to make their buildings appeal to and retain the best workers.

Getting smart about wellness

Central to this effort is the adoption of technologies that promote wellness, satisfaction and productivity from the workforce. According to PwC, absenteeism costs UK businesses £29 billion per year. Wellness initiatives that reduce the number of sick days make sensible investments that can significantly boost business performance. With salaries and benefits comprising around 90% of the operating costs of any typical large business, even modest increases in productivity arising from better working environments can significantly improve the bottom line.
Improving employee fitness, access to natural light, good food and healthy temperatures are playing a more important role in workplace design due to their impact on absenteeism and staff turnover. Recent scientific research has been able to demonstrate that higher levels of physical activity can lead to more effective employees. Gartner estimates that 10,000 companies gave fitness trackers to their staff in 2014 in order to combat sedentary lifestyles. Some have even trialled fitness bands that capture data on employee physical activity. Sensors have also come to the market which help prevent back, neck and muscle pain, and for good reason. The Office for National Statistics reports that in 2013 30 million work days were wasted due to musculoskeletal problems.
Air quality can also impact the productivity and wellbeing of occupants. High CO2 levels have been shown to increase feelings of tiredness and negatively affect decision-making in a number of studies. To prevent this, many firms have installed sensors to detect and measure levels of CO2, allowing the building management system (BMS) to adjust heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) settings when needed. Natural ventilation or mixed-mode conditioning can bring about a number of benefits, including savings on health costs, HVAC energy and increased productivity.
Through monitoring the environment and activity of the workplace, companies are coming to understand how their workspace is impacting their people. Smart building systems and sensors create valuable insight which optimises the working environment. This helps businesses realise productivity gains, and attract and keep the best talent.
Spurred on by rising costs, competition and a shrinking, fluid workforce, companies are creating new ways to secure more value from their real estate. This shift has changed the types of work environments firms create, invest and opt to locate in. Facilities are getting smarter as companies realise the competitive advantages that can be secured from adopting a well-considered workplace technology strategy. The notion of the office as a dumb container for work, has been shaken by fluid, agile workplaces using data to augment wellness and and better performance.