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How IoT devices can make your office building smart

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Office workers with face masks

There is no doubt that the modern workspace is evolving. New workplace attitudes, fueled by the global pandemic, have centered the office as the hub for collaborative work while also being responsible for an employee’s well-being and productivity. Internet of Things (IoT) devices have been key in creating smart office spaces that can automatically organize shared areas, maintain healthy environments and save utility costs. Optimizing these spaces is integral as for most companies, real estate constitutes the second-largest cost [ref]. We have therefore identified three noteworthy categories of IoT devices for the smart office, exploring their benefits and critical features.

The major trends pushing smart office technology

Dynamic workspaces

Work behaviors such as hot-desking or coordinating shared meeting rooms were somewhat known pre-pandemic; however now, these systems as well as social distancing have become a regulated necessity. A report by Microsoft [ref] found that 66% of employers around the world are adapting their workplaces for hybrid work arrangements. This is changing the purpose of the office to be used for more collaborative work. 

Furthermore, extra workplace strategies such as social distancing, limiting occupancy in shared areas and cleaning protocols have been implemented as a precaution against spreading COVID-19. These changes could ultimately cause a lot of unpredictability in employee space usage and may require permanent conversion of spaces to suit this dynamic-working environment. 

Workspaces that support employee wellbeing

In addition to hybrid working, employers are recognizing the importance of how the office environment can improve their employee’s physical and mental well-being as a major determinant of productivity. Therefore, ensuring buildings have optimum environmental conditions such as temperature and lighting is essential.

Air quality is especially important as a Harvard study reported that bad indoor air quality can decrease workspace productivity by more than 50% [ref]. In order to provide a healthy work environment, more responsive HVAC and lighting systems are needed.  

Reducing maintenance costs

Water leaks are a major issue and cost insurance providers more than $2.5B a year in the US alone [ref]. This is ever more prominent in commercial buildings [ref], like offices, due to a much higher density of plumbed appliances like toilets, kitchens and HVAC systems that are being used more often.

On top of the higher likelihood of leaks, vacant properties from the global pandemic add to the potential damage. During the pandemic, many office buildings were not in use for long periods of time which left pipe networks damp providing the optimum conditions for corrosion. Furthermore, more refurbishments and downscaling into new premises can cause more potential leaks from the remodeled plumbing. This underlines the necessity of predictive maintenance tools so appropriate action can be taken early.

Office chairs at desk

Three main types of smart office technology

Occupancy sensing 

Occupancy detection has so many crucial use cases in the post-pandemic work environment, but it also has the potential to reduce significant operating costs. Firstly a major organizational challenge in the post-pandemic office is how we share spaces safely without compromising workflow. Fortunately, occupancy sensing devices can detect if a room is occupied or not which means spaces can be managed remotely, accounting for the maximum capacity regulations and time for ventilating rooms in between sessions.

Smart AI cameras [ref, ref] or radar devices [ref] use visual or spatial information respectively to identify exactly how many people are present. This can also be done with people counters [ref] installed more discreetly at doorways to count the flow of people into and out of a room.

In the case of hot-desking and social distancing, individually installed passive infrared (PIR) sensors can automatically create a map of where seats are unoccupied [ref]. This can also guide targeted cleaning routines as well as controlling lighting and HVAC systems so unnecessary energy is not used in empty rooms. From this extra analysis, if building managers are aware that certain rooms or even floors are not being used, this gives enough evidence to temporarily or even permanently close areas, saving real estate costs. 

The list of occupancy detection uses goes on, but ultimately having these automatic insights can relieve so much organizational pressure off of facility managers who would otherwise carry these observations manually or through expensive consultants [ref].

Occupancy Sensor

Indoor air quality (IAQ) monitoring 

Poor office air quality can arise from many causes and can contribute to significant short and long-term health risks for employees [ref]. Air quality is especially important as many studies have linked poor IAQ with the increased likelihood of transmitting viruses [ref]. Variables such as temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter levels are all fundamental indicators of this likelihood which must be effectively monitored. Modern air quality sensors [ref, ref] can be equipped to detect more than 15 types of environmental conditions and pollutants making it easier to adjust HVAC systems accordingly.

Even if IAQ is not health-threatening, poor environmental conditions can undetectably decrease employee wellbeing and therefore productivity. Sensing systems that extend detection to equally important factors such as lighting, humidity and air pressure will ensure that corrections can be made to optimize employee comfort. Many of these environmental monitoring systems can be connected to cloud analytics [ref] that transform raw data into useful actions, removing the burden off of facility managers to interpret live information. 

Air Quality Detector

Water leak detection

As we have established, predictive maintenance will be essential for the modern workplace in order to prevent the risk of water leaks. In office buildings, and particularly in high-rise buildings, there is a range of weak points prone to leaks such as flat roofs, windows and HVAC systems. 

Luckily there is a selection of water leak sensors that take a proactive approach to early water leak detection. Firstly, flow meters can be installed within plumbing networks to detect changes in flow, velocity or pressure that may signify if a leak is present [ref]. A more localized approach uses flood sensors [ref] or sensor cables [ref] that are triggered when in contact with water. These methods can detect the very first drops of a leak as well as locate the source. Sensor cables are a more flexible and scalable option, so are ideal for large spans of areas such as roofs.

Aside from being able to prevent water damage, monitoring water usage and leaks can mitigate considerable water waste. The EPA reports that an average household wastes nearly 10,000 gallons of water through leaks per year [ref], which scaled to a commercial building underlines the importance of water leak detection.

Flooded Floor

Key features to consider in smart office technology 

The global smart building market, which covers the mentioned IoT sensing devices, is predicted to grow from $67B in 2021 to reach $265B by 2028 [ref]. This substantial projection highlights the demand for more automatic and intelligent systems, but there are a few factors that need to be considered.

Delivers accurate and live data

Primarily, facility managers value systems that are accurate and are less likely to cause false alarms. But what is also important is to receive alerts and live data promptly; as in the situation of a burst pipe, minutes surpassed can leave gallons of water wasted.

Protects privacy and security

What is coming into concern, especially from an employees’ perspective is how these devices could breach privacy. Cameras, as used in occupancy sensing, can be very accurate in identifying people and their surroundings; however, this can make people feel uneasy even if data is not stored and is GDPR compliant. Therefore selecting a sensing mechanism such as PIR that only detects movement for example can be more suitable.

More internet-connected devices also emphasize the need for security-protected devices. Therefore IoT systems must be developed robustly, sending only encrypted messages to prevent the likelihood of cyberattacks.

Scalable technology

Scalability is a fundamental aspect we see from multiple angles: installation, cost and power efficiency. Regardless of the accuracy of a water leak sensor, if the coverage only functions for a small area under a pipe, this can be useless if there are other just as critical areas that need monitoring. Cost-effectiveness is therefore vital and should consider installation, as well as maintenance costs, as these will impact the true ROI from these devices.

Action-based insights 

Finally, as a smart building may have multiple types of IoT sensing devices, methods of communication should integrate into a unified platform for facility managers to understand. This is essential as in-depth data is futile if actions cannot be taken efficiently.

Applying LAIIER's Severn sensor onto a pipe

LAIIER’s solution and vision

At LAIIER, we have identified and designed all three sensing categories that are essential to smart office transformation. Our sensors use unique printed and flexible materials to adapt to any surface whether in cramped or extensive spaces. This form factor combined with our sensing techniques makes installation and operating costs very economical and scalable.

Many IoT devices for occupancy detection, air monitoring and water leak sensing have emphasized that smart building technology is a system, not a standalone product. Therefore, we have also developed our Surface to Cloud™ platform which allows for wireless and power-efficient communication via LoRaWAN. Alerts and insights can thus be proactively communicated to key stakeholders such as facility managers.

The office workspace is undergoing significant changes during this uncertain period, but what we are sure of is a movement towards more employee-centric dynamic spaces. Hybrid working is the new normal and to adapt to this, IoT devices will be essential to organize and monitor a healthy and cost-effective workplace.

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