Gail Hunter, head of HVAC and energy, Johnson Controls UK&I looks at the future of building use after COVID.

There are countless things about 2020 that we would never have predicted, or even thought possible. For facilities and building managers (FMs) and owners, the very idea of so many buildings sitting empty, month after month, was unthinkable. And for buildings that were in operation, the stakes were higher than ever. With COVID-proofing top of the agenda day in, day out, employee safety has quickly taken centre stage.

This chimes with one of the principal themes in Gartner’s strategic technology trends this year: people centricity. We know that businesses will be maniacally focused on putting their people first in 2021, and while that encompasses many elements, one of the most important is the buildings in which we work.

Overhauling the experience of employees in workplaces – whether that’s warehouses and factories, wholly-owned or shared office spaces, or healthcare or educational settings – relies on three key areas: safety, comfort, and sustainability. In all of these areas, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) play a more critical role than they ever have before.

Safety in the air

So far, much of the focus on COVID-proofing workplaces has been focused on sanitisation and social distancing. These are important, but as we learn more about the virus, we’re also learning that improving indoor air quality is a crucial part of the fight. We already know that air quality in buildings, especially those in cities and towns, is poor – but ‘poor’ means something entirely different in the COVID era.

What most businesses and building managers are looking for are technologies which can limit the spread of COVID-19 in the air, improving air quality and drastically reducing the spread of the virus in workplaces.

One such technology is bi-polar ionisation. Bi-polar ionisation increases the concentration of air ions to heatlhy levels that are usually found in nature such as a higher elevations. These ions act as an active disinfectant to neutralises contaminants in the air. One such contaminant that bi-polar ionisation continuously neutralises is COVID-19 particles, both in the air and on surfaces.

When used in conjunction with other methods of improving air quality, like introducing more outside air into a building, technologies like these are now front of mind for those selecting HVAC systems for new build offices, hospitals, schools and other buildings. But they should also be on the radar for building and facilities managers looking to update their HVAC systems to be more COVID-secure. Bi-polar ionisation tubes can be retrofitted into air handling units or ducting – in fact, the closer the ions are to the ducting, the higher quality the air can be. Smart monitoring of systems can also present an air quality score on displays or even on an app, so that employees can be sure the air they’re breathing is as clean as possible, and know that their safety is paramount.

Air quality is no longer an afterthought, but an issue that COVID-19 has brought starkly into the light – for FMs post-pandemic, it’s non-negotiable.

Comfort is king

Focusing on safety is one thing, but making sure employees can be comfortable in their workplace is also important. After months of working from home, giving workers a place to concentrate, to be creative, and to collaborate again in-person is vital – and comfort is key.

It goes without saying that having a functioning HVAC system is important – fights over the thermostat are a well-worn trope in sitcoms and real offices around the world. Post-COVID, however, “functioning” is no longer enough. Instead, employees expect the benefits of an intelligent HVAC system, one that responds to their needs and doesn’t let them down. There’s nothing worse than getting into the office to find the air conditioner has malfunctioned – especially not now we are all accustomed to working from the comfort of our own homes.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, smart, integrated HVAC systems are the best bet. Connecting your chillers, air handling units, ducting, air conditioning units, and plumbing ensures FMs and building managers can oversee the entire system from one central location. This also makes it possible to resolve minor faults remotely. Adding a layer of AI and predictive technologies ensures that systems can be maintained and serviced without impacting employee experience. If downtime happens at 2am on a Saturday, it’s unlikely to impact staff. Having a service partner with a network of engineers is also important, so that any issues can be quickly resolved – whether in-person or remotely.

Sustainability on the mind

The fight against climate change is more in the consumer’s consciousness than ever before, and it’s likely that employees are starting to take notice of what their company is doing – or not doing. HVAC systems are a great place to start when building sustainability initiatives, with plenty of energy efficiency gains to be made.

Integrated, intelligent HVAC systems play a big role: if you can see your entire system in one place, you can make efficiency gains much more easily across the whole estate. The technologies within HVAC systems have a role to play too. Take bi-polar ionisation – not only does it neutralise and clean the air in buildings, but it also enables businesses to recycle much more air than they could otherwise, and means there is no need to heat or cool air more than once. Overall, this technology alone could reduce HVAC expenditure by as much as 40%.

This is the other point – sustainable, energy efficient systems have a big impact on the bottom line. While employees are moving to the centre of operations, finances have always been there, and never more so than this last year. If businesses and FMs can overhaul employee experience and make much-needed savings in the process, it’s a win-win.

The way forward

COVID-19 might be the catalyst for an increased focus on improving indoor air quality, and on putting employees at the centre of business operations – but this also pays dividends for a business in the long term. Testament to this is the critical role HVAC is already playing in bringing flexibility to workplaces – ensuring staff can work safely in warehouses, factories, schools and hospitals, and soon helping building owners and managers ensure the safe return of employees to offices. Having the right HVAC technologies in place creates a level of flexibility that is much-needed after a year of flux, and provides employees with a comfortable, safe place to collaborative effectively and be productive.

For facilities managers and building managers who want to keep occupants safe and comfortable, and for business leaders who want to ensure their employees can have the experience they deserve at work, focusing on HVAC is a good place to start.