Words by Katie Puckett
When companies are defined by their use of technology, why wouldn’t they apply it to their own workspaces? Just coming on stream is the ability to collect and analyze data about every aspect of a building’s operations and the activity that takes place within it. The workplace of the future will be fitted with a dense mesh of tiny multisensors, constantly collecting information on light levels, sound, temperature, air quality and occupancy, and transmitting it wirelessly.
“The technology is getting better and better, and there’s more and more we’re able to do,” says Herbert Els, senior vice president of building technology systems at WSP. At the company’s innovation centre in Boulder, Colorado, there are 50 multisensors in a 6,000ft2 space, which Els’ team is using to develop applications including a virtual reality model. “When we pull that live datastream into the VR environment, a building operator wearing a headset can sit comfortably in their chair and teleport [walk virtually] through the space to see how it’s performing.”
“We used to talk about ‘class A’ office space, but now it’s ‘class T’. Technology firms have driven these concepts, but now other companies want to offer the same environment”Herbert Els, WSP
This will transform the way we manage and occupy buildings. Real-time granular data will make maintenance more efficient — by identifying which areas are used most, for example, to inform cleaning schedules or charge different business units for the energy and space they use. It will be used to create more pleasant, comfortable environments — so a poor air quality reading could trigger a higher number of air changes. Combined with presence-aware technology, it can support access control, safety evacuation and security: “A tech company wants to know where their visitors are at all times,” says Els. “They could geofence them and send a notification the moment they go outside the area, asking if they need any help. And at the same time, notifying security.”
Building data will become an invaluable business strategy tool. Companies will derive the greatest benefit by combining sensor data from the building with data from other corporate systems, says WSP’s Matthew Marson. For example, they might cross-reference employee timesheets or performance with their location in the building: “So we could see that if we put the designers on the north of the building, where there is a certain level of blue light, they’re three times more innovative. Or if we’ve got teams spread across the globe working on the same bid, if we pay for them to travel and sit together, will we find that we’re 6% more likely to win because of that collaboration? It’s by adding all of this data together that you find out the secret sauce of your organization.”
The future of the workplace
Is this the end of the office — or the start of its finest hour?
“There’s a fine balance between real-estate optimization and space scarcity,”adds Els. “Agile working really means densification, but as you squeeze more people in, the real estate benefit is hugely offset by the drop in productivity. What is the optimum space density before social decorum breaks down because there’s a lack of personal and reservable space? Smart technologies allow us to measure a successful workplace.”
Technology will empower us. Smart systems can give people greater control over their environment and help them find a space that works for them, says Els. His team is developing an app that will show which desks are free, as well as the noise levels, lighting and temperature in each space, and guide users to their chosen spot. They are also working on a meeting room system to clear “zombie bookings” and show real-time availability of rooms.
Employers can use the same systems to see who’s talking to who: “A lot of firms are very interested in using this to measure community building.” From a privacy point of view, it’s the same as social media, he says: “As long as convenience comes with it, people are more willing to share personal data.”
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