Can Smart Buildings Support Workplace Wellness?
Part One of our two-part series on smart buildings and office wellness takes an overview of how smart buildings and technology can support corporate employees’ workplace health. We also identify the challenges facing employers and occupants in implementing change.
Part One: Wellness and the Smart Building
In the past, corporate employees had little influence on their physical work environment, but times they are a-changin’. These days jobseekers have additional expectations besides a good salary and an interesting job: flexible working, a coffee machine and a comfortable environment that fosters productivity, low anxiety and stress levels. In other words, they expect that their workplace will not negatively impact their health.
Though much of our work-related wellbeing relates to our role, company culture and colleagues’ behaviour, studies have found that our physical surroundings contribute directly to our sense of wellbeing and our productivity. In fact, the World Health Organisation identified that ‘the workplace directly influences the physical, mental, economic and social well-being of workers and in turn the health of their families, communities and society [ii]’.
Are we ready to embrace change in our workplace? On the home front, we’ve eagerly spent our hard-earned cash on health-related smart devices; fitness trackers, exercise apps, stress monitors and other wearable tech. At work, we’re a nation of obesity-prone employees in sedentary jobs, tap-tapping at keyboards all day long. From an employer’s perspective, in 2012-2013 work-related injury and disease cost the Australian economy $61.8 billion, representing 4.1% of GDP [iii]. Given this statistic, how can employers use smart buildings and technology to boost morale, support healthy bodies and minds, and avoid injuries in their workforce?
The Five-Year Strategy for 2019-2023 [iv] released by the Australian NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System) initiative in May 2019 states their mission as: ‘All Australian buildings are healthy, comfortable and have zero environmental impact.’ Specific to commercial office buildings, the NABERS Indoor Environment guide [v] identifies five key parameters for assessment:
- Thermal Services
- Air Quality
- Acoustic Comfort
- Office Layout
Guidelines produced by organisations such as the World Green Building Council [vi] and the WELL Building Standard v1 [vii] use similar concepts, though they include aspects such as active design and exercise, amenities and location, and biophilia (the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature).
Although smart technology can support all the listed parameters and considerations to some degree, the technology can be applied to some concepts more than others. Sensors can be used to monitor air quality and flow, heating and cooling, lighting and noise, assessing usage levels and benchmarking against optimum wellness levels. Plants, garden areas and green walls can be used internally and externally to improve air quality and support biophilia. Installing sensors to monitor soil quality and moisture levels will ensure these natural environments thrive.
The technology is already available and new products come on the market continually, but uptake is only now increasing. It doesn’t help that the quality of sensors is inconsistent across the market. Placement can be a challenge, as can calibration and connectivity.
The Need for a Centralised Platform
One of the main barriers facing the smart building industry is the lack of a centralised platform for controlling assets and collating data in smart buildings deters investment. Owners, facility managers and occupants need a platform that aggregates, cross-compares and analyses data to provide insights on a holistic level.
Though contractors have been installing Building Management Systems (BMS) for decades, many of these BMS are now out-of-date, discarded or disused. Alternatively, facility managers may have multiple BMS to cover a single building’s services. Even when BMS are used and functioning, often no-one monitors the data output and no process is in place to analyse the data.
Are there no centralised BMS platforms or devices that provide all the answers? While the problem has been on developers’ radars for years, solutions are only now beginning to emerge and few of these specifically address wellness. SAMBA (Sentient Ambient Monitoring of Buildings Australia) is one example of a cross-monitoring sensor, developed by the University of Sydney’s Indoor Environmental Quality Lab. SAMBA measures indoor air quality, lighting, thermal comfort and acoustics, then relays real-time insights via a web-based dashboard. However, SAMBA is a monitoring system, not a management system, and cannot implement changes to services in itself.
Return on Investment
As with many aspects of property ownership and occupancy, financial return is key to motivating change. An owner who commits to improving facilities could raise rent to compensate for upfront expenses. However, the main ROI is likely to be increased rentability and tenant retention. These are long-term pay-offs with no guarantees, the kind of loss leaders disliked by investors and banks.
A number of companies may be prepared to pay for improvements themselves if they’re committed to raising productivity and care about their staff’s welfare. Realistically, though, many employers would consider this strategy a waste of money on rented properties and look to relocate instead.
Owners and investors want to see evidence-based data analyses, evenly distributed to justify financial outlay. We have masses of data and basic trends at our fingertips but what we have is rarely collected and compared. It’s the lack of such insights that has stalled change, in part.
One of the grey areas around smart buildings, technology and wellness is the question of individual privacy. Would you consider it an invasion of privacy if your employer tracked your whereabouts inside a building? Perhaps it would feel like Big Brother watching your every move, but there could be advantages. If the building caught on fire or you became trapped in an elevator, knowing your exact location would assist emergency services. Many situations that compromise safety could be solved more effectively by monitoring a building’s occupants continuously.
What if employers want to track your physical and emotional wellbeing instead, using wearable technology? Perhaps they insist you wear a tracker which uploads biometric data to a central hub for analysis? Again, these approaches might feel invasive, but what if your employer uses these insights to justify improvements to your work environment? The key issue is employer-employee trust, compliance and knowing our rights.
When it comes to data privacy, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (2018) [viii] has made progress, the Australian Privacy Act (1988) [ix] is due for an overhaul. The Act focuses on company compliance rather than empowering the individual. Without legal protection, employees may take a lot of convincing before they’ll let their employers collect data on such a personal level.
Smart technology succeeds and fails based on the rate of adoption. While smart buildings still adopt smart technology predominantly for cost-saving and efficiency measures, they can’t ignore the research: a happy, healthy workplace supports happy, healthy workers. Perhaps the use of smart technology to foster wellness will always be guided by the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet and – most significantly – Profit.
At mySmart we’ve been working with smart technology for more than a decade. We’re an Australian company at the forefront of creating intelligent environments.
Contact us to identify how our solutions can effect positive change for your needs – it’s what we’re good at.
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