As business leaders and executives begin to look at returning to the office, the safety and well-being of employees is top of mind. Even after vaccinated populations reach herd immunity for COVID-19, it’s a matter of when, not if, the next pandemic will strike. While the rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many business leaders to react quickly to provide employees with the technology needed to effectively work from home, the return to the office should be carefully plotted and planned out with worker safety and well-being as the primary focus.
Executives will have to balance worker safety with business and employee need in terms of collaboration, social interaction, and interpersonal relationships. In the short term, this will mean implementing and retrofitting existing office buildings to address these concerns, convincing workers that every possible measure has been taken to ensure their safety.
Moving forward, office design will likely be guided by smart building technology that focuses on protecting workers from the spread of infectious diseases as much as possible, while also adapting to a hybrid approach that accommodates both in-person and remote employees.
Improving Indoor Air Quality
One of the major focuses will be on improving indoor air quality—important for both mental and physical well-being and serving as a strong line of defense in preventing the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace. While building automation systems used to control a building’s HVAC, lighting, security systems, access control aren’t new, technological advancement combined with smart building technology powered by the internet of things—a network of internet-connected devices and appliances embedded with sensors and software communicating with each other to gather and exchange data that can then be analyzed to perform a particular task or action through automated systems—are making them better.
Sensors can now monitor air temperature, humidity levels, and air pressure. They can also monitor and determine the concentration of air constituents, including harmful gasses and pollutants like carbon monoxide, volatile organic components or compounds, and ground level ozone. Collected data is system analyzed to automatically react when air quality issues are detected.
UV-C purifiers used in conjunction with ventilators and cleaners can then be deployed to control or eliminate pollutants. The short-wave ultraviolet light used in UV filters can kill microbes including viruses, bacteria, mold, and mildew. Air cleaners can filter and trap pollutants, while ventilators can circulate in fresh air and maintain proper air pressure.
These systems can also be used to alert occupants if levels of pollutants or gasses get too high, requiring building evacuation. Additionally, sensors monitor the systems themselves and send alerts when maintenance, repairs, or replacement of components need to be made to ensure everything is operating effectively and efficiently.
Eliminating Touchpoints in the Workplace
Another topic of concern is eliminating touchpoints throughout the workplace. While sensor-activated toilets, sinks, and soap dispensers are common, sensors can also be used to monitor levels in smart soap and towel dispensers for automatic refill or to alert janitorial staff that levels are running low.
Biometric scanners can be deployed in lobbies or building entrances to perform facial recognition for touchless entry into the building or office. These systems can perform temperature checks and determining whether an employee is wearing a mask before allowing access to other parts of the office.
Voice activated elevators allow workers to request their floor number, and sensors monitor occupancy to help ensure social distancing protocols are followed. Facial recognition software or wireless keycards may also be used to automatically open doors, and coffee makers and vending machines operated by mobile apps may eliminate further touchpoints.
Monitoring and Maintaining Safe Occupancy Rates
It’s likely that when business leaders and executives do decide to reopen offices that not all workers will be back at the same time in order to practice safe social distancing. This will lead some workers to return to the office full-time while others stay completely remote. Or, a third – hybrid – option may accommodate a workforce where employees spend office hours at home and in person throughout the week.
To monitor occupancy rates and help with contact tracing, employees can reserve desk, conference, or office space on days they are planning to be in the office, allowing managers to track of who’s in the building and where they are located on any given day. It will also aid in scheduling deep cleaning of workspace surfaces after hours for spaces scheduled to be in use the next day.
While the open-plan layout was already starting to breathe its last breaths, the coronavirus has likely been the final nail in the coffin as more companies shift to flexible workspaces that are purpose built to enhance an employee’s work life. Automatic moveable walls that can be deployed to create private workspaces, conference rooms, and offices are one option that allows optimal use of office space depending on the changing needs of employees.
Addressing Connectivity and Privacy Concerns
While software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have allowed employees to collaborate and hold meetings, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teleconferencing. Tele-immersion software facilitated through virtual and augmented reality may help employees feel better connected regardless of physical location.
When implementing any new technology, cost and ROI will always play an important role. Other items to consider include network speed and reliability, security of connected devices, and employee privacy concerns. IP networks offer the best approach to providing reliable connectivity. Scaling as needed, this type of network can handle the data and power loads for a large number of sensors and devices that can all be connected to a building’s master control system. Additional smart devices in the workplace means a great need for ensuring network security. While it might seem laughable, it has been shown that a smart appliance— like a coffee maker—can be hacked and lead to ransomware attacks.
Privacy concerns is another hurdle employers will need to overcome when it comes to using mobile apps on personal devices, wearables in the work environment, and biometric scanners like those used in facial recognition devices.
Facilitating a Safe Return to the Workplace
As business leaders begin formulating plans to return to the office, they will need to turn to technology to create safer work environments for their employees. When adopting any new technology, the focus should be on determining what areas need to be improved—whether it’s worker safety, improving productivity, or delivering stronger collaboration—and then finding the right solution, getting buy-in, and then adopting and implementing the new technology.