September 2018

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Elevating Smart Building Design to Create Attractive Spaces

In the digital era, we need to rethink what brings people together in spaces.

Brad White

Brad White
P.Eng, MASc
SES Consulting Inc.

Contributing Editor

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It used to be a given that when you were “at work” you were physically at your employer’s place of business, together with your colleagues. While this definition may still hold true for many industries (retail, manufacturing, etc.), for an increasingly large percentage of knowledge workers being “at work” is no longer necessarily tied to a particular space. You can be “at work” while sitting on the couch in your pajamas or sitting in a coffee shop or on a park bench.

Our company, SES Consulting, is like this. We have no attendance policy to speak of, and our team members generally aren’t required to be in the office or even in the country. Despite our relaxed policy, about 2/3 of our team is in the office on any given day. In order for people to come to our office, something about our space needs to be attractive. I don’t mean attractive in the sense that it looks nice, but rather that they are attracted to some aspect of the office that makes them choose to work there and not somewhere else.  In talking with our staff, there a number of things that attract them to our office. Some may not have a suitable space that’s more convenient. Often folks come in for meetings, though these can often be taken remotely. The most common reason, by far, is that they find being in the office the best way to collaborate effectively with their colleagues and it’s more fun than working on their own someplace.

Just as there are attractors, there can be things that discourage folks from coming to the office. In our case, the most common of these being a long commute, noisy environment, poor air quality (due to the diesel trains that like to idle outside our window), and otherwise uncomfortable spaces (a side effect of inhabiting offices inside a converted 150-year-old warehouse). Sometimes, these negative factors are enough to keep people away from the office, at least part of the time. This is perfectly understandable, and it wouldn’t occur to me to require anyone to put up with unsatisfactory conditions. We want our staff to be comfortable, healthy and, most of all, able to interact and easily collaborate with their colleagues. We want them to be happy and feel productive, which also happens to be what they want for themselves.

None of our staff has ever mentioned that they wish our office was “smarter” or did a better job incorporating “IOT” devices. In fact, no one has even mentioned that they want an automated control system instead of manual switches and stats to control our (very simple) HVAC system. This is in an office full of technology savvy millennials, a large number of whom also happen to be controls engineers! The fact is, any piece of technology that doesn’t have a significant impact on the factors that pull people to or pushes them away from our office isn’t going to have the slightest effect on the number of people who choose to come into our office, or their satisfaction once here.  There is even the possibility of technology contributing to pushing people away. In our offices, the decision to turn on the AC or the lights is made by consensus of the folks in that zone, usually initiated by the first person to feel uncomfortable. Automating our HVAC could actually lead to a loss of perceived control and lead to less satisfaction among our staff. As peddlers of smart building solutions, that these technologies were largely irrelevant to our own staff in our own space was a rather sobering revelation. The fact is, most smart building solutions are designed with the building owner, operator, or manager in mind, not the occupants. With occupants increasingly having the choice as to where they spend their time, designing solutions that are attractive to them will be crucial for office space to remain relevant.   

[an error occurred while processing this directive]So what kind of smart building solutions might be attractive occupants?  It may be snazzy that the heat or lights come on in my office when I scan my badge at the entrance, but that is probably not enough by itself to convince me to make an hour long commute into the office if I don’t have to. Having an app that tells me at a glance that my teammates are also going to be in the office and everyone is free for lunch, that very well could be enough to get me to make the trip. But once I’m at the office, I might decide to stay longer if my heat and lights are where I want them without having to think about it too much. Along these lines, it will be crucial that the user experience of the occupants is paramount when it comes to designing these solutions. While there may be lots of complicated stuff going on in the background, 99% of that should be invisible to the users (yes, that was a subtle plug for my favorite podcast). If your technology can do that, then it will be successful. I believe this will be driven by well designed, minimalist apps and systems that incorporate features like voice activation with natural language processing. When it comes to comfort, for example, users don’t want to have to think too much about why they’re uncomfortable. Is space temp too low? Air flow too high? Are the windows drafty? If occupants have to think too much about why they’re uncomfortable, then you already have a problem on your hands. Systems should be able to deduce occupants’ issues largely and respond appropriately, with the complexity being handled behind the scenes, invisible to the occupant. “Alexa, make me happy.”

As technology for supporting remote working becomes more advanced, there may be a day when the “virtual” office can offer the same employee experience as a physical one. I think that day is still a long way off.  There remains considerable value in the physical office space, and the right space really can make employees happier and more productive. But achieving this will require paying close attention to what attracts your employees to the office and designing with the employee experience in mind. Otherwise, it’s going to be increasingly hard to convince people to get up off their couch, change out of our sweatpants and head into the office.

For more discussion on the future of smart building solutions, please join us at AHR Expo this coming January in Atlanta under the topic “Next Generation HVAC Controls: Open Hardware – Open Software.”


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