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Smart Buildings and Wellbeing Are Driving the Future of Workplace Design (IFMA 2021)

October 26, 2021
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Buildings aren’t what they used to be. Neither is the workplace. Both have been challenged by a pandemic that forced people to reconsider the traditional work model and what they expect from the places in which work is conducted.

“We find ourselves in a world where buildings have a different purpose than they ever had before,” said Melissa Marsh, founder and CEO of workplace innovation and real estate strategy firm Plastarc, during her presentation at the 2021 IFMA World Workplace conference. Even prior to the pandemic, facility executives and designers were talking about shifting the way buildings are measured, moving away from traditional metrics such as square footage, occupancy or financially based measurement systems to people-centric metrics that include things like accessibility, indoor air quality, health and wellness, and space for collaboration, for example.

That shift is more important now than ever as employers struggle to bring their employees back into the office after they’ve spent the past 18 months working from home. Marsh noted that on average, people now anticipate working remotely 2 to 3 days per week, compared to less than one pre-COVID.

As a result, she said companies have an opportunity to rethink the workplace experience for employees and create spaces that are healthier and better connected than ever before. 

Technology for Employee Engagement

Many people think about the hybrid work model as being on the opposite end of the spectrum from the traditional in-person model. However, Marsh suggested hybrid should be thought of as the center point of the scale, in which one end involves no remote, or “asynchronous,” work and the other, all remote, with the hybrid model in the middle. She noted that many of Plastarc’s clients are beginning to shift their thinking toward this framework where hybrid is the starting point for determining how a building is used and the technology that’s required to support employee engagement and wellbeing. 

“The technology opportunity is that smart buildings are social buildings,” Marsh said. “The next generation of buildings are not just there for sustainability purposes, the smartness isn’t just about turning the lights on and off to save energy; they’re turning the lights on and off to serve the customer or the occupant. They’re turning the lights on and off [which] will also let us know what the utilization rate or occupancy is,” she observed.

[Related: Ensuring Occupant Health: Key Findings and Insights from Global Study of 21 Office Buildings]

Marsh also pointed out that there are more sources of occupancy data in buildings than ever before. Many organizations have invested in new kinds of security systems in part to manage everything from contact tracing to social distancing, and it’s become even more important to know if a space has been used or cleaned. Leveraging these sorts of technologies can make the workplace far more effective and connected for employees. 

“An opportunity of a lifetime is upon us to take those sensor systems and apply them for other purposes that enable the occupant of the building to do their work better,” Marsh said. “If you’re coming in to see other people, not just to work at a desk, then who else is in the building, who else is there, is more important for your work than ever.”

Marsh went on to suggest that buildings are becoming more like software than hardware every day in that there’s greater changeability than in the past. Leveraging IoT-based technologies, smart buildings can offer:

  • A better user experience with increased productivity and improvements to overall occupant wellbeing
  • More engagement between people, space and activities—through activated networks and better use of resources
  • More efficient space programming via space utilization analytics, which enables the right spaces in the right places for people
  • Improved learning, informing intelligent portfolio optimization, cost savings and reduced energy consumption

Multisensory Design for Wellness 

Marsh said it’s important to get back to the basics when considering incorporating elements within buildings that promote wellness

“Humans are sensors,” she said. “And the basic principles of wellness and thinking about who we are as people and how we respond to our environment is founded in using those senses that we learned about in preschool or elementary school that we can count on our five fingers.”

She suggested that when it comes to design, a lot can be improved in our environments when we think about the five senses and getting them right on a regular basis in buildings:

Smell—noses sense things in the air that might be beneficial or a risk or a concern, so it’s important that buildings have an inviting or clean scent

Sight—beyond what a space looks like, consider the amount of access to daylight that’s provided, which has proven benefits to occupants, including circadian rhythms, vitamin D levels and biophilia

Sound—prior to the pandemic, noise was the biggest complaint in offices, so addressing noise pollution through a combination of proper acoustics and sound masking systems, for example, is essential

Touch—the ability to touch, feel and see different textures supports our somatosensory system, while other factors like temperature, humidity and ergonomics promote comfort and physical wellbeing

Taste—as people back come together in physical environments, food and our sense of taste play a big role in health and nourishment, so thinking about providing spaces where people can share meals or ensuring high water quality are important considerations

“In our bodies, all of these senses are bundled and wrapped together, and if in a work environment, we miss one of them or are not considerate of one of them, that’s a way that we’re subconsciously recognizing that human characteristic that’s so important,” Marsh said.

She concluded her talk by noting that the things that collectively make activity based working environments successful are giving people functional choices as to where they work, supported by well-designed physical spaces and technology, as well as multi-sensory choices that provide an optimal experience for employees that will help attract and retain them.

Innovative Products Support Wellness and Getting Back to Work

IFMA's World Workplace show also featured a wide array of innovative new products and technologies on the show floor, many of which were designed with health and wellness in mind, and getting facilities back online in a post-pandemic world. Following are a few highlights from the show:

Zip Water: Founded in Australia in 1947, Zip Water has established expertise in instant filtered boiling, chilled and sparkling water products, and is known globally for being home to the world’s most advanced drinking water systems. At the forefront is the HydroTap system which is set to transform workplaces by dispensing filtered boiling, chilled and sparkling water instantly—all from a single tap. With this technology integrated, Zip Water customers are drinking more water, eliminating single use cans/bottles and seeing the benefits to overall wellbeing.

LaserCycle: LaserCycle cares about safety, which is why the company introduced its safe, fast-acting EPA-registered hypbochlorous acid (HOCl). HOCl is effective in cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing any sized workplace. Combined with LaserCycle’s handheld foggers, the product empowers people to keep their work areas, conference rooms, bathrooms, warehouses and vehicles safe and save time—all without skin, eye or respiratory irritation.

GPS – Global Plasma Solutions: Indoor air quality is more than a business at GPS—it’s a passion. The company’s patented needlepoint bipolar ionization technology (NPBI) helps deliver cleaner indoor air without producing harmful levels of ozone or other byproducts. All GPS needlepoint bipolar ionization (NPBI) products are UL registered and CE compliant. Through NPBI, GPS products improve the air by reducing airborne particles, including certain odors, viruses and bacteria. 

qlair: qlair provides the sensors, data and solutions needed to ensure continuous clean air for occupant well-being and operational efficiency. Leveraging data from leading air quality and HVAC filter monitors, qlair’s platforms allow facility management professionals to detect, analyze and mitigate air quality issues proactively. 

Ultra Durable Technologies: Ultra Durable Technologies (UDT) manufactures and delivers world-class floor coatings for contractors, hospitals, schools and industrial facilities throughout North America. Its goal is to formulate and produce eco-friendly products that perform better than traditional, high-maintenance, high-odor products. UDT’s thin-film, water-based finishes eliminate the costly and unhealthy ramifications of using traditional floor finishes and eliminate the need for buffing. 

SOLID Surface Care, Inc: From carpet to stone to metal and wood, SOLID provides specialty surface care solutions to ensure safe, healthy and clean facilities. For businesses preparing to partially or fully reoccupy their space or have already returned, SOLID’s offers deep cleaning, disinfecting, restoration and maintenance for all hard and soft surfaces. SOLID’s consultive and data-driven approach to developing custom surface care solutions promises to enhance any facility’s existing daily janitorial protocols.

TruSens: Wellness is at the heart of TruSens products, which are developed with functionality and design at top of mind. Its proprietary SensorPod technology measures air quality, DuPont filtration captures indoor airborne pollutants and UV-C kills germs and bacteria trapped in the filter, giving employees, customers and students peace of mind with cleaner air.

Airthings: Airthings is a global technology company and producer of award-winning radon and indoor air quality monitors for businesses, consumers and radon professionals. Founded in 2008, Airthings is on a mission to ensure that people around the world recognize the impact of indoor air quality and make radon and indoor air quality sensors an essential element of every building. Airthings is committed to helping businesses use digital technology to optimize their indoor air quality. This promotes a healthier environment, increases workplace productivity and reduces energy spend. 

Crandall Office Furniture: Crandall Office Furniture specializes in remanufacturing high quality office chairs and providing OEM-quality aftermarket office chair replacement parts, such as casters, gas cylinders, arm pad, and more for tier-1 chairs made by companies such as Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, etc. Crandall also has complete work-at-home solutions including adjustable desks and floor mats. COVID barriers for large office settings are available in custom sizes. All of its tables, chairs and barriers are made in the USA. 

Cartegraph: Cartegraph builds safer, more resilient and sustainable communities through better stewardship of critical infrastructure. They offer powerful, intuitive SaaS solutions that help government agencies, utilities and educational institutions better manage their physical assets and associated operations. With Cartegraph software, facility management professionals optimize the life of their infrastructure, deploy maintenance resources efficiently and increase productivity to drive high-performance operations.

C&W Services: C&W Services provides integrated facility services to more than 600 customers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The company’s purpose as a leading facilities services and management company is to provide innovative self-performed services to a diverse portfolio of clients and market segments. ITs new Level Up services incorporate best practices instituted in response to COVID-19 to ensure the safety of its employees and clients’ occupants. 

Read next: New Headquarters Blends Hybrid Work With Comforts of Home

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About the author
Robert Nieminen

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of interiors+sources and Buildings media brands, and an award-winning writer, editor and design industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience in the publishing industry.