By Beth Stana and Matthew Kelley From the February 2023 Issue
Within the last three years, the typical office has gone from fully on-site to fully remote—to a hybrid of both. Most employees have experienced varying work environments and are aware of the advantages of each. This has caused their expectations about the ideal office experience to drastically change. Many people are now looking for a flexible work situation where they feel productive, safe, comfortable, and empowered—and they’ll even switch jobs to find it.
As a result, creating a positive employee experience that attracts and keeps talented workers is one of the highest priorities for employers today. The foundation for that experience starts in buildings, and the right technology in place to enable ideal outcomes. As building owners and facility managers are facing retention challenges of their own, those who understand the pressures facing employers and take actions that support the success of hybrid office environments are better positioned to keep their buildings full. Here are three actions that building owners and facility managers can take to position their properties ahead of others while meeting sustainability goals.
1. Have The Right HVAC Systems In Place
The last few years have revealed the effects of building environments on occupants, especially the air. Between viruses and contaminants, people are more concerned than ever about what they breathe. Air quality, ventilation, thermal health, and moisture are primary factors that affect occupant health and they’re all influenced by a building’s HVAC system. A clean air strategy starts with an HVAC system that can enhance building performance and support occupant well-being.
A healthy building’s HVAC system should provide:
- Adequate ventilation – Fresh air is key to a healthy indoor environment. Modifying an existing HVAC system, such as an air handler or packaged rooftop unit with an economizer, can increase fresh air intake, which optimizes ventilation levels while offsetting heating and cooling demands. Larger capacity applications may require an additional, dedicated outdoor air system to meet ventilation needs. The evaluation of duct sizing and configuration can confirm that system capacity and airflow paths are adequate.
- Reliable filtration – Properly treating both outdoor and recirculated air can eliminate pollutants and irritants. HVAC systems that use HEPA and MERV 13 through 16 filters can mechanically remove particles from the air to improve indoor air quality.
- Optimal humidity levels – Maintaining optimal space temperature and humidity levels not only provides a more comfortable workplace, but it can also destabilize pathogen transmission and prevent mold and mildew growth within the system and throughout the building. Ideal space relative humidity should remain between 30% and 60% to minimize the risk of virus transmission, mold growth, and occupant discomfort.
- Effective disinfection – When systems recirculate building air, air handling systems equipped with UV-C disinfecting lights can make environments healthier. UV-C systems can provide surface and air cleaning, which helps eliminate fungus and mold that may form on an HVAC system’s coils and can reduce and deactivate airborne viruses or bacteria not captured by filters.
- Performance and environmental data – Connected HVAC systems can provide real-time data about critical process parameters, including operating efficiency, air quality, and preventative maintenance alerts. This data can provide actionable insights and support decisions that promote wellness while helping to drive energy efficiency. With performance data, facility managers can make informed decisions that improve occupant wellness while gaining the sustainability benefits of a well-operating, energy-efficient system
2. Harness Digital Technology
Imbalances in ambient temperature, air quality, and sound can hinder sociability, attention span, and mood. Yet, in most offices, people have little control over their environment and often work in distracting conditions that don’t suit their needs. Digital technology is changing that.
Smart tools paired with HVAC zoning make it possible to create different environmental areas within the same building and grant all employees app-based access to zone data and controls. Comfort preferences are unique to biological and neurological makeup, so an individualized approach often yields the highest level of satisfaction. Zones can establish areas based on employee personas and activities conducted within each space.
Using an app, employees can view environmental factors in each zone, adjust their current zone, and choose to work from the space that aligns with their personal preferences. Employees can easily request ideal temperature ranges within zones using a preference feature, then an algorithm establishes optimum settings based on the aggregated results. They can also adjust natural and ambient lighting levels and functional noise control features such as sound dampening curtains.
With the right technology in place, a person sensitive to allergens could book a meeting room based on air quality reports. Or a hybrid worker could access real-time occupancy information to reserve a desk during less busy times, then use foot traffic data to route a path to their workstation that avoids crowded areas. Other digital technologies such as touchless entry and building navigation via smartphone or key fob can help limit the spread of germs and reduce unnecessary traffic and contact throughout buildings.
This all can be done while keeping sustainability a key priority. For example, facility managers who integrate space utilization sensors into their digital systems can direct comfortable, clean air to where building occupants are. They can also harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize indoor air quality (IAQ) and energy consumption. By focusing system use only on spaces where it is needed most—and by staying informed through data—facility managers can greatly optimize energy use for buildings with hybrid models.
3. Offer A Flexible Work Environment
Collaboration looks a lot different in today’s office model than it has in the past. Teams often include a mix of on-site, hybrid, and remote personnel who can have a wide range of needs based on personal abilities, comfort levels, and preferences. A successful experience considers everyone and makes space for group and individual worktime that’s productive and comfortable.
Digital technology can democratize building management in a way that makes space for everyone’s participation. This starts with smart-device apps and centralized kiosks that give employees the freedom to schedule community resources and monitor important building parameters with ease. These apps and kiosks seamlessly provide everything from room, desk, and storage locker booking to in-building traffic monitoring, navigation guidance, and calendar syncing.
Equipped with this level of personalized control over their activities, access to critical information and office-wide transparency, staff can approximate their ideal conditions for the people in (or not in) the room and the productivity of the activity at hand. They can reserve a space that empowers the participation of both on-site and virtual team members or, if they don’t have a fixed desk, a free workstation in the quietest corner of the office to tackle a tough solo project. With these needs met, employees can collaborate more seamlessly, leading to higher productivity.
Since these actions are supported by data and digital tech, facility managers can also track the energy savings associated with smarter space management decisions to maintain their sustainability progress.
Delivering On Sustainability
The success of a building’s tenants directly effects the success of the building. Built environments that evolve to meet the needs of new hybrid work models help increase employee freedom while improving their well-being and maximizing their potential.
The flexible facilities that attract and retain quality tenants are often good stewards of their internal and external environments. Those that prioritize sustainability commitments can reap the benefits of higher quality tenants at premium market rates. This purposefully constructed foundation directly supports the goals of building tenants and gives them good reason to stay.
Certification programs like LEED and WELL help building owners maximize their commitment to environmental stewardship and to occupant health and wellness. Those certification programs typically attract tenants at a higher value per space, too.
Certification programs like LEED and WELL help building owners maximize their commitment to environmental stewardship and to occupant health and wellness.
When taking the first steps toward transformation, it’s important for building owners and managers to determine their organizational goals and the building’s existing digital capabilities. It’s important that they seek out a partner with a proven history of supporting similar facilities.
By taking meaningful actions that fulfill today’s needs, building owners and facility managers have the potential to serve new and existing tenants, deliver on their sustainability commitments, and reap the benefits for years to come.
Stana is a senior product manager for Johnson Controls OpenBlue Companion. Throughout her career, she has focused on delighting users through mobile, desktop and platform solutions. A graduate of the University of Georgia, she resides in metro Atlanta.
Kelley is an associate product manager II for centrifugal chillers at Johnson Controls where he supports the growth of the company’s centrifugal chiller products and provides customers with more sustainable and safe building products. He began his career within the HVACR industry at Johnson Controls in 2014 after earning his bachelor’s degree in energy engineering from Pennsylvania State University.
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