How to use data to improve your Return to the office strategy
As a Facility Manager, building manager or owner you face one of the biggest challenges of this time. The office needs to be an appealing place to go back to and will serve different needs than before. So how do you make sure that the choices you make for the “Return-to-the-Office” are the right ones? Are your choices fed by gut feeling or supported by hard data?
Over the last couple of months, a lot of return-to-the-office strategies are developed and implemented. The number of variations of measures is unlimited, all with the best intentions and being able to let 10 to 50% of the workforce return to the office. But what stands out the most is the theoretical approach and assumption of two things which are not as certain as expected:
Assumption nr 1:
We assume our HVAC installation is working as it should.
Assumption nr 2:
We assume indoor air quality provided is either sufficient or we build our policy around the worst-case scenario.
Often, we are making policies and strategies based on assumptions (gut feeling) and not on facts (hard data). Facility Managers operate in the dark and have little to no idea of the implications of the strategies we implement with the best interest. To illustrate, here is a classic example: a meeting room, originally designed for 8 persons, is now only accessible by four persons, and after a meeting, a cooldown period is set for 2 hours. Our gut feeling tells us the ventilation is enough for 4 persons during the meeting and the 2 hours is enough to get all the “bad” air out and replace it with fresh air.
So what if the ventilation system hasn’t been working properly during a 2-hour meeting and less than anticipated fresh air has been delivered to that meeting room, causing a higher risk of infection through aerosols? For that, we need to go back to assumption 1, a properly working HVAC installation.
We assume it’s working correctly because maintenance is done in regular intervals and the number of complaints about temperature, relative humidity or odours tells us if it’s okay.
In reality, the installation might work well for 80% in the building but has undiscovered anomalies. These remain undetected, as they are either rather small or the installation is too complex. A human operator can be supported by AI in discovering these anomalies. This way the HVAC installation is optimized and AI can be used to increase the efficiency of the installation.
The efficiency of the HVAC installation increases by using more parameters than we’ve done before. Older systems typically would be reactive and based on room temperatures, relative humidity, and newer systems occupancy or CO2 is added. The more insight we create, the more we can act on it. And now with an increased focus on health and safety, it is urgent to increase HVAC intelligence by adding more parameters.
This starts with sensors measuring volatile organic components (VOCs), particle matter (PM) and recently sensors which are capable of measuring aerosols. Why is this important? Worldwide there is an academic consensus that aerosols are the main way of the transmission for COVID-19.
There are now sensors available which tackle this gap in insight with sensors which are capable of measuring aerosols directly. So CO2 as a mere proxy is no longer necessary.
To conclude, with better insight into our indoor air quality through advanced sensors and a clever operating system of our HVAC installation, we can create a safe work environment. An office where operational and strategic choices are made based on hard data, instead of a gut feeling.