The sustainable office in the age of hybrid work hotelification

According to Leeson Medhurst, head of workplace strategy at office design and build specialist Peldon Rose, the office of today is “very much a blended one”. As notions of what hybrid working means have matured from the early post-Covid days, the focus is no longer on creating spaces predominantly for employees to connect and collaborate.

Instead, there is now an understanding that task-based employees tend to work in fixed destinations around 60% of the time. As a result, many employers are carving out three specific work areas to support staff in undertaking different key activities – a concept now known as hotelification.

“If you compare it to social media, so LinkedIn, Instagram and X, we see LinkedIn as being the highly focused, professional space, Instagram as a connected, collaborative and expressive place, and X for communication,” said Medhurst. “So, there are three different spaces to cater to your specific needs on any given day as the office becomes even further hotelified.”

But beyond simply focusing on productivity and performance issues, many employers are also becoming “acutely aware” of the need to design office spaces that take account of the “social impact” on their employees, he says. This includes wellbeing and the impact of stimuli, such as noise, lighting and temperature. Inclusivity is another important consideration.

As for sustainability in an environmental sense, the picture is rather more mixed. According to a recent global survey by networking giant Cisco, 45% of employers claimed that including (environmental) sustainability features in their workspaces was one of the top three considerations when undertaking a redesign. Yet Rebecca Waller, head of design at office fitout and interior design firm Diamond Interiors, is not convinced. She says that “sustainability is a bit of a catch-all term that can mean lots of things and has many different aspects”.

For instance, Waller explains, it means reusing existing infrastructure to reduce the organisation’s carbon impact. It involves recycling goods at end of life rather than throwing them into landfill. It also entails using sustainable materials, such as hemp and Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood as standard. But the cost impact of going down this route, particularly “in the north” of the UK, is a big challenge. “London is an anomaly as sustainability is more expected and required and there’s more money,” she points out. “But elsewhere, it’s about balancing aspiration, budget, sustainability and timescales, and sustainability tends to end up being compromised.”

Peldon Rose’s Medhurst agrees that the market for sustainable workplaces is still “in its infancy”, particularly among smaller companies. “We need strong leadership from government here, and unless it gets robust with fining and setting an agenda where there’s defined legislation, organisations will continue to pay lip service,” he says. “To achieve sustainability costs more and to maximise the budget, it’s the first thing that’s traded – very few come in and say, ‘sustainability’s non-negotiable’.” 

How can technology help?

So, what, if anything, can technology do to help? Medhurst points to the value of sensor technology in a hybrid work office context as a means of optimising energy usage.

For example, if they have the option, most employees prefer to work in the office from Tuesday to Thursday. “If you know Mondays and Fridays tend to be quieter, you could shut a floor and use technology to turn off the lights and heating,” he says. “You can also alert the concierge teams to say the floor’s not being used, which saves money on employing them, but also on cleaning materials, toilet paper and the like.” This approach reduces the environmental impact at the same time.

But Medhurst does sound a note of caution around being too gung-ho. For instance, he indicates the “huge amounts of power” consumed by datacentres and big data farms. Another challenge is the disposable approach to technology adopted by many employers when they upgrade laptops and mobile phones every few years.

James Clark, chief executive of managed workplace services provider Apogee, an independent subsidiary of HP, agrees. He points to refurbishing old equipment, such as printers, as a simple but effective way of reducing the organisation’s carbon footprint.

“There are more open doors for refurbished kit, such as laptops, and some public sector tenders, in particular, demand that a percentage of their fleet is renewed in this way,” he says. “You can take an older printer, for example, refurbish it and put it back into the wild, and it could have another five years left.”

The start of change

To boost inclusion and staff productivity, meanwhile, Cisco decided to revamp its offices in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Paris over the past three years. As part of the move, it rolled out artificial intelligence (AI)-based devices that “make it feel like you’re in the room with colleagues regardless of where they are in the world”, says Snorre Kjesbu, the company’s senior vice-president and general manager of collaboration devices.

While only 30% of the company’s conference rooms used to be video-enabled, now all of its workspaces incorporate such technology, including huddle and open ideation areas. Over time, though, Kjesbu believes AI will play an even more significant role in boosting employee productivity.

“We’ll move from more scheduled meetings to ad hoc interactions that foster creativity, connection and collaboration,” he says. “We’ll spend less time catching up on messages because AI will be able to summarise it for us, and more time thinking about new and creative ideas that move the needle.”

In terms of moving the needle in a sustainability sense, meanwhile, Waller believes that, although it may still be early days, things are starting to improve. “It’s still a matter of having to explain why it’s not great to have a carpet with bitumen backing,” she says. “It’s still about winning hearts and minds, but we’re definitely on the right path.”

The Sidara experience

Looking to turn its new London headquarters into a smart building, design and engineering consultancy group Sidara has a fundamental aim of attempting to create a process of continuous operational improvement in support of its sustainability goals.

The firm constructed the building at 150 Holborn from the ground up with sustainability in mind. This included introducing an attenuation tank and blue roof to help it reuse water and prevent flooding, and a native-species roof garden to encourage wildlife. Opening in January 2023, it was rated outstanding under the BREEAM new construction sustainability framework.

Another part of the puzzle included implementing Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure internet of things integrated building management platform. Via a network of more than 650 sensors and controls, the system collects, manages and analyses 65,000 data points every five minutes. These provide information about the building’s energy usage, occupancy patterns and environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity and light intensity.

At the same time, Para’s AI-based digital twin and analytics technology creates a virtual model of physical objects in the building. It then uses real-time sensor data to monitor and learn from them.

As a result, the building can automatically adjust and optimise systems, such as lighting, temperature and ventilation, to boost energy efficiency, optimise resource utilisation and improve employee comfort levels. The technology used also identifies data patterns and anomalies to predict equipment failure or maintenance requirements before they occur.

Sidara has also implemented Planon’s integrated workplace management platform to undertake activities such as facilities management and booking meeting rooms. It has also linked together the systems from each of its sister companies using Ideal’s converged IT network. This means data collection from typically separate systems, such as building management platforms, CCTV and access control, is now seamless across the entire business. 

Learning, adapting and growing

Dan Cope, Sidara group’s IT manager, says the ultimate aim was to move from a “‘break-fix’ mentality to more of a ‘why is it broken and how do we stop it breaking again in future?’ approach.

“It’s easy for organisations to say they’ll collect as much data as possible, but our aspiration in terms of sustainability was to contextualise that data and transform,” he says. “It’s about looking at the whole lifespan of the building to learn, adapt and grow over the coming years.”

To this end, the organisation has been collecting data for just over 12 months to build up a picture and start benchmarking its activities. The next stage will be to use this data to optimise operations.

But even over the past year, the company has found ways to use such information to make improvements. For instance, it established that footfall to its restaurant dropped to a mere 33% of the usual total on Fridays. This made it difficult to justify keeping the facility open that day, not least due to food waste issues. But as of January 2024, footfall rose to 50% on Fridays, leading to a decision to reopen it. Elsewhere, the data showed that between 70% and 80% of the company’s 48 meeting rooms are used regularly.

But utilisation rates stand at only 40% as most of them are too large for the average number of people getting together. As a result, says Cope: “There’s the potential to change things in future and manipulate and use the space in a different context. But you need to have this kind of information available to make informed decisions.”

Lisa Kenny, Sidara’s head of client experience, believes the use of such information can be taken a step further. “It’s about using data to change behaviour,” she says. “We can use the benchmarking information to engage people internally and create better behaviour, for example, by encouraging them to save electricity by sitting elsewhere if they’re going to be on a floor by themselves.” This is important, Kenny believes, because “everyone has a part to play in how the building evolves”.

“A data-rich environment can contextualise things and give people more awareness of what we want to try and achieve,” she says. “It’s about creating more consistency and showing people that with small interventions we can do x, which all add up to something much more significant.”


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