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How to control the risks of a post-Covid office

Simon Ward

Simon Ward

Director of Sales, UK & Ireland at Distech Controls
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Simon Ward, Director of Sales, UK & Ireland at Distech Controls, talks us through the technologies available in the market that can assist with safely opening spaces in a post-pandemic world. 

More than ever, having a fully functional Building Management System (BMS) to ensure wellbeing in non-residential buildings is critical. A defective system can have serious consequences for the health of occupants by facilitating the transmission of viruses and bacteria. 

A study on new work habits post-Covid, carried out in Europe in June 2020, shows that 43% of people who have to return to their workplace are concerned about the hygiene measures that will be put in place to ensure a healthy environment. Employees made significant changes to their behaviour and ways of working during the pandemic, which has increased their sense of perceived safety and letting go of those feelings and behaviours will not be immediate.

Many organisations are planning a phased return to the office, with a new hybrid way of working. There are also certain trends that will impact how people return including a new digitally savvy generation entering the workplace, the developments in technology, a culture of flexibility and the need to be mobile.

Due to these changes and trends, there is an acceptance that organisations will have to invest in their building stock and upgrade their facilities to provide safe environments for their staff. Using enhanced technologies can send a powerful signal to employees that their wellbeing is a priority, while at the same time creating opportunities for future improvement.

In the first instance, there are a number of proactive measures that we can put in place to make our buildings safer. These include managing indoor air quality, detecting occupied spaces, providing contactless comfort management, ensuring social distancing and identifying people that can have safe access to the building.

Let’s look at air quality first. According to the US’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air quality is up to five times more polluted than outdoors. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers also published a guide for re-opening commercial buildings and has created four key elements building owners should do – increase the ventilation rate, increase rate of air renewal, use HEPA filtration and eradicating viruses and bacteria in HVAC Systems.

Once the air quality has been considered, we need to look at how we manage the spaces. With shared spaces becoming more common, it’s important to know who is using a space and when, especially for cleaning purposes. 

Room and desk presence detectors, which record in real time if a space/desk is occupied and keep a record of occupancy over time, allow the facility manager to know the occupancy rate of the building dynamically or over a period as well as to plan which offices/spaces are to be disinfected in priority. 

Occupants need to feel comfortable as well as safe in their working environment and providing them with control over the space is important. With the latest generation of wall sensors and thermostats you no longer need to touch the equipment on the wall to personalise occupant comfort. 

To ensure social distancing, people counting sensors can be a good tool to employ. In the context of a smooth return to the office, the data collected by this type of sensor (number of people per zone) can be used to ensure that the density of people per area is within social distancing guidelines.

It’s important to be open with employees and this can be delivered by providing a mix of information in an easy-to-read dashboard, available at the entrance to the building or directly from the building occupant’s phone. The dashboard could include the procedures that are put in place on the premises, for example dis-infection routine and social distancing rules, or a simplified view of the status of the BMS with information such as showing the ventilation is working optimally. 

A digital floor plan could be utilised and enhanced with a new type of Point of Interest to make them interactive and allow people, in real-time, to visualise the information specific to safe movement and occupancy of the premises.

The key is to bring as much of the building data together, in one place, as possible. This is where open protocols combined with APIs, such as RESTful API, can be vital. With RESTful API and the open Internet Protocol (IP), communication between devices becomes easier and you can achieve a fully integrated system. By using a RESTful API interface systems integrators can enable IT web services to easily interact with software applications. 

Providing occupants with all the data they need to feel comfortable and safe in their office is vital. Clearly demonstrating the measures you have in place, as well as giving them autonomy over their workspace goes a long way to alleviating any concerns they have. When people feel like they have choice and control over various aspects of their physical work environment and are aware of the status of their environment it leads to greater satisfaction overall. 

There are also knock-on benefits. Improving indoor air quality may boost cognitive abilities, as well as the health and wellbeing of employees, as low air quality can interfere with workers’ productivity.

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