REAL ESTATE: How coronavirus will shape the smart workplaces of the future
Workspaces have gone virtual as employees hunker down at home to help flatten the coronavirus curve. In many cases, buildings, businesses, and employees have begun to adjust to working remotely. Now is the time for commercial real estate (CRE) companies to plan for what is almost certain to be a new way of work once the pandemic subsides.
It’s clear that the office in a post-pandemic world will be more virtual. And when more people realize they don’t need an office to get work done, the impact will be very much like that of e-commerce on shopping malls: People don’t go to malls to buy things anymore; instead, they go for community, social interaction, and experiences.
So, how does the asset class evolve? The purpose of office space will be to bring people together emotionally and collectively, rather than functionally aligning to a role at a desk. You can bet that once lockdowns have been lifted, workers won’t talk about how much they missed their physical buildings. It’s the local luncheonettes and happy hour spots or the latest batch of Netflix binge updates shared during a midmorning walk to the coffee shop that are truly missed.
In fact, the “un-office” of tomorrow might look more like a kitchen where people are cooking together or a pub where people are communally sipping beers. The office will no longer be thought of as a factory of people and processing. Rather, it will become a place where workers come together emotionally and socially to connect and bond.
Building owners and operators have a window of time to rethink their office design. Those who understand that the purpose of the office is evolving, and are prepared to adapt quickly, will come out on top. As CohnReznick’s Real Estate Advisory Services Leader Julie Miner shared in her article “The Human Element Within a Digital Community,” “What’s needed is a holistic, human-centric strategy that carefully integrates digital services and office facilities.”
The coronavirus pandemic also emphasizes the need for healthy buildings and augmented workplace wellness. Air quality and ventilation, for example, will become a greater priority. Ample fresh air helps to dilute airborne germs, and research indicates that higher humidity could help prevent viruses from spreading rapidly. Smart buildings could also be designed to collect information on the behavior of people working inside to help inform decision-making in a crisis.
Building automation will continue to increase, but it will also become touchless. Awakened to the contagious nature of the coronavirus, people will be increasingly reluctant to touch objects like light switches, elevator buttons, and thermostats. Building designers should already be considering touchless automation like hands-free doors, voice-activated elevators, and phone-controlled door locks.
Tomorrow’s smart buildings will likely be outfitted with infrared monitors that can automatically screen occupants’ body temperatures as they enter the building or sit at their desks. Those with a fever might be asked to go home for rest and recuperation. This type of temperature screening was successfully used in airports and office buildings in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea to help contain the coronavirus early in those countries.
This level of intervention, however, can expose sensitive private information. The collection of personal data and the use of technologies like artificial intelligence and facial recognition will be contentious. To ease concerns, CRE firms will need to develop interconnected systems with data privacy built in by design. The ability to protect private information will become a wider pedigree of a truly intelligent building. Privacy will become an amenity just like an on-site gym or dry cleaning service.
The focus on wellness in a post-coronavirus world will also extend to mental health. While we don’t yet understand the full emotional impact of unanticipated remote work, we do know that isolation can have a serious impact on mental health.
That’s because work delivers a sense of purpose and a paycheck, but also eight hours of daily social connection and interaction. A workspace provides the opportunity to chat around a coffee machine, grab a sandwich at lunchtime, or share beers after work. Remote work strips away these human interactions, creating a sense of isolation that can degrade mental health.
Companies will now need to pay greater attention to the mental health of their employees. Doing so will require heightened human observation to watch for signals of distress. To that end, managers will need to be thoughtful and intentional in their relationships with others. They must become familiar with what stress looks like and be prepared to act.
Certain technologies can be harnessed to monitor mental states. Biometric sensors, for instance, can be coupled with facial recognition software to look for signs of stress in a person’s face. Other types of sensors can measure how forcefully a person shuts a door or flips a light switch, signaling emotional stress.