Working from home has undoubtedly brought many positives for many people, but we have a more nuanced understanding of it 18 months on. Whereas some jobs have seamlessly adapted, others are keenly feeling the absence of face-to-face interaction. This was a much-discussed topic at the recent RICS Global Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Management Conference, which looked at the future of the workplace. My keynote speech focused on how the office has changed over time and what the post-pandemic world of work will look like.
As some parts of the world take the next step in re-opening and more people return to offices, we will begin to get a stronger sense of what hybrid working entails and the role of the built environment in facilitating it. Despite the proclamations at the start of the pandemic that the office was redundant, it is clearer than ever that the office has a vital role to play in hybrid working, particularly in facilitating collaboration.
This will give new importance to the quality of office facilities, as recent research by Leesman suggests employees were more willing to return to high-quality offices and reluctant to go back to poor-quality ones. Our research at Mitie similarly found that 81% of people now say they would not want to work for a company with poor office facilities, while three-quarters said they would be attracted to working for employers who have invested in technology to ensure a safe return. Hybrid working has created a greater choice than ever before for employees, and those employers who make the investment in their facilities now are those who stand to reap the benefits of this.
Facilities management at its core is about asset management, but the pandemic has extended our remit beyond buildings into people management too. This is driven by the new emphasis on the relationship between the built environment and people’s health and wellbeing. Many of the features that employees frequently requested in our recent research were not major innovations but simple, effective changes to improve workplace quality – like more space between desks, better ventilation systems and better cleaning regimes. Others were features found in many smart buildings, like booking apps, thermal imaging cameras to monitor temperatures and UV disinfection technology. A few years ago, these would have been regarded as ‘nice to have’ features, but in the smart offices of tomorrow, they will be essential for employers looking to retain staff confidence and enhance wellbeing.
Beyond optimising employee experience, smart buildings will have an increasingly essential role in climate resilience. The record-breaking temperatures experienced in Canada last month and heatwaves in many other countries have highlighted that smart buildings will be necessary to maintain productivity, as conditions that were once considered extreme become a regular occurrence.
Given estimates that 75% of today’s buildings are expected to be in use in 2050, smart retrofitting will be critical in the years to come – we need to change perceptions that smart buildings can only be found in glass walled skyscrapers. For instance, in the Netherlands, engineering firm Arup are using a digital twin to plan a retrofit for the Dutch Government’s County Hall building in the Hague. By using over 30,000 data points from the existing building management system and 350 new sensors designed to measure user interaction, the team can explore different alternatives for an energy-neutral building – all of which can be digitally simulated before implementation to optimise their choices.
Smart buildings just make sense from every perspective: they use less energy, have lower operating costs and higher valuations. The technology is still relatively new and there is considerable potential in the long term, particularly as we can start to network smart buildings to share data and learning, further enhancing their performance.
The office is about to go through a period of significant change as we adapt to hybrid working: the challenge will be ensuring we use this as an opportunity to make our buildings smarter and our people happier.