WhoshouldIsee Tracks

Cognitive Buildings in the COVID age

By Nick Henley, Unified Communications and Active Networks Consultant at Cordless.

Many discussions are now taking place about how technology is responding to the needs of those who continue to work in the COVID age. This article takes an independent look at getting back to the workplace and the steps to deploying technology to assist business post lockdown.

We highlight how workplace environments and cognitive technology can work together to support companies with large offices, how to effectively maximise available spaces and support employees in getting back to work safely.

As we move into the next phase of COVID-19, our experience grows and our thoughts turn to relaxing the lock down measures. Technology will have to adapt again to support these as it has with home working. As a consultancy, we have been tracking what this will involve and understanding how tools and technology that are already out in the marketplace are being used to adapt. Creating something new at this stage is more difficult as the research and adoption cycle is unknown, so we should view ourselves as being in the adaptation phase. As a technology practice however, we do see ways that existing technologies can be used to create new support mechanisms for organisations at short notice. Specifically, in this article, we’re looking at how technology could support those organisations who will open their offices up and how to apply social distancing to their current work practices.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review* stated that the open plan office is dead and that we will move back to silos and individual workspaces. To say that, is quite a simplistic approach, in that there are very strong reasons why a company opts for ether an open plan or collaborative workspace as opposed to closed areas. Buildings will however need to adapt so that employees can work safely, and technology can help this. A key factor in this will be the historical lessons that we can take in relation to the innovation of products and development. When given time to consider and plan and evaluate, many developments never start as they are deemed unprofitable or not required. Necessity is the mother of all invention they say which is why in times of extreme hiatus and discord, rules about innovation and testing are removed and ideas tried with huge resources given over to do this. We are now in that cycle as technologists.

As we work to support the design of a number of buildings around the world, we are seeing trends and particularly before COVID-19, that companies were almost treating buildings as an airline booking seats on aircraft, in that they would deliberately drive up building utilisation by creating an environment with sometimes only enough space to house 60% of the occupancy of the total workforce at any one time. Add into that equation the ‘Friday factor’ and the start of the week, and utilisation factors vary wildly.

The primary driver for organisations to create buildings purposely without enough space for every employee is to maximise the cost per square foot (sq. ft) and match costs more closely to utilisation.

Building utilisation will be reduced to account for social distancing

In the COVID age, this metric is likely to be applied in reverse in that only 60% of the available space will be able to be used at any one time. In a simple equation, the amount of space given over to social distancing will be subtracted from the total sq. ft to produce the available utilisation.

  • Total amount of building space
  • LESS
  • Space required for social distancing
  • Available space post COVID-19

Thus, sq. ft costs will become more expensive but taken against not opening offices at all and the trade-off becomes bearable. The next stage will be to determine general footfall, entering and exiting areas and communal areas such as canteen or break-out areas. Creating flows into and out of these areas intelligently will further inform the utilisation figure available to a company.

So how can technology support this and quickly?

The answer could be very simple and be deployed using no more than algorithms bespoke to an organisation and building along with smart technology. By taking a cut away section of a floor, we can see the areas of desks and available space. Social distancing will inform us of the proximity to others in those areas to provide the amount of maximum occupancy at any one time and therefore the available sum per floor and utilisation.

Desk booking – Redeployment of room booking applications to include desks on floors will make those desks available for people to enter offices safely. Start times can be altered depending on the zone and therefore arrivals. These can also work in reverse by contacting teams and advertising that spaces are available or to create project zones for teams who need to work in agile project support for example.

Occupancy sensors – Deploying temporary sensors which count occupancy (anonymously), show the hot-spots within a building and can be used to create alerts for building management. Large congregations of people can be flagged, and algorithms changed to reduce available spaces to ensure the occupancy levels stay safe. Connected to existing wi-fi access points and battery operated, these sensors can be quickly deployed to create heat maps without the need for large scale IT projects.

Workplace apps – based on the data available from occupancy sensors, teams can be alerted as to when areas are quiet or over-populated and to advise when the best time to use collaboration spaces would be. By using the information available and applying business rules, information can be pushed to users to assist them in making decisions. For example, rather than searching for a room, they can easily retrieve information, so they reduce the amount of time they spend coming into physical contact with people.

Lone working – knowing who is on site is also a positive of this technology as working practices change and potentially working hours as well to reduce peaks, building teams can safely see who is on site or if someone will need assistance. Rather than sending people to check areas, the sensors will tell if people are in areas long after their booking has finished or at times when the building is closing.

Building management – For those teams managing a building, they will be able to see who is working where and the cohort on particular floors and will help in intelligently managing the people flow in the building. This will also help the deployment of resources for security or support and also allow them to close areas if occupancy is low by removing those areas from desk booking apps and containing areas efficiently.

Visitor management – In the longer term, visitor management can be accommodated by integrating booking information with allocated times to enter and available spaces for workers.  When entering the building for instance, by scanning a QR code specific to an individual, the building can cognitively allocate space based on building occupancy, current availability, an ongoing real time situation and utilisation. This way, the building can be filled intelligently and inform the property teams of how the building is performing in real time.

Cognitive Building Deployment Steps

Technology to assist business post lockdown:

  1. Decide on business rules and building occupancy.
  2. Deploy smart sensors to meet algorithms and business rules using existing wireless networks.
  3. Create building heatmaps and monitor.
  4. Create applications to cognitively deploy teams to building locations.
  5. Continually review business rules and apply to support business and user work patterns.

These are just a few of the ways in which we can see technology and the application of existing solutions being used to support the exit from lockdown which will be discussed over the coming weeks and different countries try different things.

For those companies deploying “smart building” technology, this will be an opportunity to think about the reason for this technology and to invert the reasons for occupancy levels and monitoring. No longer will it be about overbooking buildings to increase utilisation but focussing on consciously under-booking to keep utilisation and occupancy at a safe level whilst allowing them to function as a business.

We are currently involved in designing cognitive building technology based on these principles. If you would like to discuss how we are doing this and our current thinking, Cordless would love to catch up with you. Say hello@cordless.co.uk

* Source: https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-truth-about-open-offices