Can Your Building Make You Healthier?

07/11/2016 02:38 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2017

New building technology doesn't just score energy savings and corporate social responsibility points--it also boosts workplace wellness and employee productivity, and contributes to an uptick in employee engagement scores.

What's in your wellness program? Automatic lighting? Individual heat and temperature controls? Not likely. Most corporate wellness programs focus on fitness programs or building amenities like gyms, yoga rooms and healthy snacks in the kitchen. Whatever the wellness program, it's likely that its amenities are highly visible. Most miss a highly effective method for encouraging well-being: smart building technology. It's missed, because it's not visible, so therefore under-appreciated--something that's likely to change as corporate wellness programs increase in popularity.

Wellness is a huge topic among senior management and human resources executives, in large part because it relates directly to workplace productivity and employee engagement. And buildings have been scientifically documented as a part of the overall wellness picture. A World Green Building Council (WGBC) meta-study reviewed more than a decade of research and uncovered overwhelming evidence that health and well-being elements of office design have real impact on the productivity and well-being of the people who work there.

Already, almost all (96 percent) of 6,500 organizations participating in a WorldatWork survey offer elements of a well-being program. But the role that smart building technology could play in developing the blueprint for a healthier, happier workforce is still often overlooked.
Employee wellness, one automated system at a time
The fact is, smart building systems are already boosting employee experiences. Workplace designers are beginning to use room sensors to gather data about how employees are using their facilities, and using the data to shape workplace strategies. Smart HVAC and lighting systems already "know" to adjust temperature and light levels to fit real-time conditions and cater to personal preferences.

These systems are also having a huge impact on indoor air quality, one of the most important aspects of wellness in the workplace. Some advanced workplaces come with mobile apps that empower employees to choose a workspace for the day and customize the air temperature and even the background music to their preferences.

Consider the potential of smart technologies in an ordinary workday. Imagine having a mobile app that interacts with your office building, giving you greater choice and control over your work activities even before you enter the building. Some facilities already provide mobile apps that help workers locate a parking space or spot on a bike rack as they arrive at work, and then choose a workspace and customize the environment to optimize productivity. The office might even have an espresso machine that knows you'll want a skim latte.

Building systems that "know" you may have once been the realm of science fiction novels, but today it's the new reality. The key now is to understand the power these tools could have on employee wellness.

Smart building features that double as wellness wins

Employees are increasingly demanding comfort, engagement and choice in their workplace. On-demand facilities and related workplace services that leverage technology, data and analytics can deliver on that expectation, and also empower facility managers to anticipate end-user needs more readily than ever before.

Following are a few key ways automated features can directly support employee wellness:

• Thermal and light comfort has a major influence on wellness. Smart lighting can not only provide the lighting levels needed for the task and personal preference, but also automatically respond to the availability of natural light--no more too-much or too-little light that can increase stress and reduce focus. Daylight is being increasingly recognized as a "magical" force in the workplace, measurably boosting employee productivity.

• Smart occupancy sensor use can support autonomy. Coworking is popular for a reason: People crave choice in where they work. Occupancy sensors can be used to gather data about how, where and when people are using their workspaces, helping facility managers and workplace strategists determine the best use of available space. In addition to reducing stress and improving mindset, giving workers choice and the right kinds of workspaces for the right kind of work can ultimately fuel employee engagement and greater productivity. And, using space more effectively can reduce space costs, having a direct and immediate impact on the bottom line.

• Peace of mind in knowing "it's handled." Did you forget to turn off the plug strip? No worries. Smart systems can automatically power off lights, coffee makers or printers when room sensors indicate that a space is unoccupied. Can't find your way around a large office campus--or worried that a client will get lost on the way to your product experience center? A mobile wayfinding app and responsive digital signage can help point the way. Need a meeting space? A workplace mobile app can find a vacant meeting room, or a nearby wireless whiteboard for collaborating on a presentation.

• Smart systems banish common annoyances. Wellness programs may not commonly feature smart elevators, but an elevator that proactively responds to real-time needs--like a car arriving early or a large meeting ending--can save valuable time and reduce stress. And smart bathroom and kitchen equipment can alert staff to ensure supplies are always at the ready, so no angst or time lost in waiting for a vital refill to arrive.

Advances in technology, automation, data and analytics are already transforming the relationship between people and the spaces we inhabit. Now, let's use that knowledge to wield this great power for better, healthier employee experiences.
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