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Smart workplaces can have benefits that go beyond energy and money.filadendron/stock

As you walk into a conference room, the lights, temperature and even the angle of the window blinds automatically adjust to your preferences. There’s no need to fumble with buttons to set up video or audio. You just say, “Start the meeting.”

Sound appealing?

“We’ve reduced the time it takes to begin a meeting from an average of 12 minutes to around a minute,” says Bill MacGowan, director of smart connected real estate for Cisco Systems Canada. The company’s new headquarters in Toronto is a test site for Cisco’s Internet of Everything.

Instead of having assigned seats, the 900 employees have an open concept space that can accommodate twice that many staff, with a range of workspaces that they can select for whatever task they’re working on at any point during the day. Their smartphones have apps that can customize lighting and temperature around work areas.

Cisco worked closely with real estate developer Oxford Properties Group to create the space. Lachlan MacQuarrie, Oxford’s head of platform services, says that it’s a striking example of the trend toward “cognitive offices.” These spaces use data and connectivity to improve building efficiency and better match the preferences of employees.

“It used to be about landlords running the building in one way and tenants wanting it another way,” Mr. MacQuarrie says. “Now, technology is enabling customers to create unique experiences that meet their evolving needs.”

A predictive analytic app in the system uses feedback to make adjustments in the default settings of equipment and maintenance schedules. Using predictive analytics to adjust elements like indoor air quality, heating and air conditioning is resulting in a 10 per cent energy saving, Mr. MacQuarrie says, with a simultaneous savings in capital expenses resulting from lower maintenance costs.

These kind of smart workplaces can have benefits that go beyond energy and money. Better thermal control and indoor air quality can result in productivity improvements of between 8 to 11 per cent, according to the World Green Building Council in its 2018 study, Doing Right by Planet and People.

The cognitive buildings of the future will have features like sensors that maximize air quality and intelligent connections to the grid to monitor energy efficiency. There may even be increased use of more controversial innovations like facial recognition that allow access to specific work areas, Mr. MacGowan says.

“There will be challenges along the way that are not just about technology, they’re about how people interact with technology,” he adds.

A major driver of smart offices is getting people more engaged, says Sharon Turner, senior principal and director of interiors for Canada at HOK, an international architecture and design firm.

“The data we are seeing shows that 70 per cent of U.S. workers are disengaged in the office and that could be slightly higher in Canada,” she says.

According to Ms. Turner, smart buildings can make a difference for employees. “Employee surveys show that having the ability to choose work setting depending on the task they are doing scores high on employee surveys of what makes them happier at work.”

People can be distracted by feeling their work area is too cold or hot or too noisy. The flexibility to move to a different space “that’s right for you at [a particular] time of day” is an important change in how people work, she says.

Another way to improve engagement is to make an office more collaborative with a range of different room styles.

“It’s a move away from the enclosed cubicle, where people don’t feel they can disturb you,” Ms. Turner says. “We are seeing a profusion of alternative spaces – cafeterias are becoming work environments that are close to water, coffee and food.”

While many have predicted that there will be less demand for physical offices in the future, Ms. Turner says the data is showing otherwise.

“The unhappiest employee is the one who works at home full time and never gets into the office [to] collaborate with other employees,” she says. “The happiest ones are those who have the flexibility to come in when they want or need to, sit where they’d like to do their job and get feedback. It’s very hard to build a culture in an organization when everyone is working from home.”

From Oxford’s point of view, it’s not just about pleasing current employees. It’s also about companies making themselves more appealing to the people they hope to recruit.

“Our customers are all in a battle to attract and retain talent every day,” Mr. MacQuarrie says. “Our buildings have to be ultimately more than just space. [They need to] add to the experience of their employees.”

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