Back to business: Smart buildings and our safe return to the workplace


11 / 18 / 2020


2020 became the year that moved work out of the office, and into the home. Such a radical shift in working habits has highlighted how important office spaces are, especially when it comes to the productivity and wellbeing of the working world.

Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) statistics show that 56% of the US workforce has a job that could, at least on a part-time basis, be done from home. And, the GWA predicts that by the end of 2021, 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home at least some of the time. 

Whilst in theory, we could remain working from our home-offices forever, in practice, a full-time working from home model would be highly impractical. JLL found that 82% of employees miss the office, showing that the novelty of home-working has worn thin, and attention has turned to adapting our office buildings to facilitate a safe return to an in-office working model. 

A change of scene for the office landscape

In April 2020, over half of London’s workforce worked from home – of which, 86% did so as a direct result of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, businesses have continued to operate remotely, enabled by technology and the public consensus that we have to make it work.

An EMEA Occupier Flash Survey, conducted by CBRE in June 2020, showed that 88% of UK occupiers intend to increase technology investment, to support a greater prevalence of working from home. This will see occupier demand gravitate towards buildings with the technological infrastructure in place to facilitate collaboration between a dispersed workforce. 

COVID-19 has also changed our workplace priorities. As “the force of remote working is making commercial real estate optional” (Nuveen), we will likely see a shift in demand, as the “power is in the occupants’ hands to ask for more data and more clarity”. This change in occupier demand will open up a two-way dialogue between the landlord and occupier, outlining new expectations and deliverables. As a result, upon our return to the office, the buildings in which we work will have to ensure our safety, and make us want to work there. 

Why is change essential?

There is a common consensus that returning to the office is essential for the future of business. Leaders like JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon are focused on getting “back to work in a safe manner”, while Netflix’s Reed Hastings is clear: “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative”.

Google has found that 62% of its employees feel that they need to be in the office, at least on a part time basis, to do their job well. Furthermore, an interview with TIME saw Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai state that he firmly believes “being together, having a sense of community is super important”, and later goes on to say that “we need to create more flexibility and more hybrid models”.

The shift in occupier demand will see offices having to adapt. If landlords are to keep their tenants and help businesses operate under what Pichai terms a “hybrid model”, it’s essential that office spaces enable collaboration, socialisation and concentration, whilst structural and operational changes will be essential to keeping everyone safe and operating seamlessly.

How do we facilitate change? Same space, better service. 

In short, change is already here. CBRE found that, prior to COVID-19, 21% of EMEA occupiers said that they would pay a rental premium of over 20% to occupy a tech-enabled smart building.

Further, in 2019, Deloitte highlighted US investors’ growing preference for companies that invest in technologies to make buildings future-ready. And, Deloitte’s 2020 Commercial Real Estate Outlook found that 64% of executives increased their technology investments relating to tenant experience over the past 18 months – emphasising that the most-needed investments in CRE should centre around the digitalisation of tenant experience.

Although COVID-19 has catalysed our need for smarter, safer spaces, the industry desire for smarter buildings long-outdates the pandemic. As the old adage “safety in numbers” is reversed: space management and occupancy detection will become the primary concern, as spaces adapt to host fewer people, increasing efficiency and productivity.


Three interesting examples of innovative re-imagining of space:

  1. In-building systems, such as occupancy detection, were once used to avoid inefficiencies born out of space under-utilisation, now, the same system is being used to keep buildings at safe levels of capacity.
  2. In-office collaboration hubs are emerging, and staggered arrival times are becoming the norm. Access control systems enable teams to arrive at 9am, 10am and 11am instead of en masse, to ease any congestion.
  3. Monitoring of desk and meeting room occupancy, via embedded sensors in lighting systems and desks, is also becoming prevalent to enable workers to locate a safe space to work. Occupancy detection also allows facilities management teams to identify priority areas for cleaning.

The above innovations will change how individuals interact with the built environment, as the in-building experience becomes far more personalised. Enabled by resilient digital infrastructure, buildings that have the correct technological foundations in place will be able to adapt to users’ changing needs with relative ease. The tech is there, we simply need to be imaginative in regards to how we choose to use it.

Final thoughts

If the pandemic proved anything, it’s that the majority of today’s office workers can successfully work from home, provided they’ve got the right technology and good connectivity. However, the office still has an important role to play. For a “hybrid model” of working to succeed, it’s essential that landlords have the right infrastructure and an innovative plan in place to bring tenants back to the building.


The Edge, in Amsterdam, is one of the first office buildings to successfully implement a back-to-work strategy, and assisted occupiers’ return to the workplace from as early as May 2020. What’s been termed The New Normal Office is a space so well-equipped with sensors that it took very little time to reprogram the entire system to ensure building-users could safely migrate back to their office space.

Now, Commercial Real Estate has the opportunity to take centre stage. If landlords are serious about attracting and retaining tenants, smart buildings are the safest and fastest way to accommodate for the changing habits of the working world, as evidenced by The Edge’s success in regards to a safe and efficient return to in-office working.


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