Humanity is facing unprecedented times triggered by Covid-19, a pandemic which is showing a significant impact on all walks of life. The temporary stalling of economic activities has, nevertheless, been a welcome break for our planet, leading to cleaner air and water, and lower noise levels, among other benefits. Most importantly, what we cannot miss today is the visible impact of human action—businesses and our way of life—on the environment.

Following several months of a global shutdown enforced by governments across nations, there is a slow and cautious move towards resuming operations. The biggest challenge as we adapt to the new normal, however, is to generate confidence among people to return to their offices and take adequate measures to prevent the risk of transmission as we wait for a vaccine. The need of the hour is to ensure that the safety of our people goes hand in hand with care for the environment.

And the big question that begs to be answered here is: How do the workplaces of the future need to be?

In my view, the workplaces of the future need to be three things: greener, smarter, and healthier.

Going green for a better life

Greener workplaces, or green buildings, are meant to have a minimal impact on the environment. Building designs play a major role in the resulting environmental footprint and an integrated design approach to achieve a super-efficient green building is the first essential step towards ensuring a green workplace. Orienting buildings in a way that minimises solar heat gains, limiting the usage of glass on a facade to about 30%, and selecting the right type and shade of glass are among the key pieces to the green building puzzle. Green buildings also place a great deal of importance on locally sourced materials to reduce transportation. As many organisations look at their environmental impact seriously, it is increasingly becoming apparent that the way green buildings are constructed, and designed, help improve the resilience of our communities against climate risk. For willing organisations there are several guidelines on achieving a building with minimum impact on the environment by the U.S. Green Building Council, Indian Green Building Council, and the MNRE (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Government of India).

Focussing on smart solutions

Smart building systems play an important role in ensuring the operational efficiencies of the building over its lifetime, and aid in monitoring indoor environmental conditions. Smart solutions not only minimise manual intervention for building operations, but also help maintain safe distancing, especially in the current environment when the safety of every employee is paramount. Information and communication technologies (ICT) can really help here, as algorithms and controls can be defined in such a way that the building systems and equipment respond automatically and accurately to changes in weather, occupancy, etc., and ensure minimum usage of energy and water. And these building operations can also be managed remotely, by professionals. Smart buildings use sensors and automated controls for equipment such as chillers, air conditioning units, sensors, flow meters, energy meters, and lighting, and provide real-time and historical data to enable optimisation of operations and promptly address breakdowns or deviations.

Keeping health at the centre

At workplaces where people spend most of their time indoors, it is crucial to ensure good air quality, especially so for centrally air-conditioned buildings. Typically, about 15% of the total air supplied is fresh air, while the remaining is recirculated air from within the space, which can increase the possibility of transmission of infections. According to guidelines issued by reputed organisations and associations on air conditioning in response to Covid-19, increasing fresh air supply in the air conditioning systems can minimise recirculation and thereby maintain a healthier environment. While this can be possible in some buildings with a penalty on energy consumption, a different approach can be adopted for new buildings, called radiant cooling. Here, recirculation of air is altogether avoided, and most of the cooling is achieved through surfaces like ceilings, walls, or floors that have embedded pipes carrying cold water. Outside air is supplied to take care of the fresh air requirements and for maintaining the right humidity levels. Energy data from buildings in IT companies show that radiant cooling is also 30% more efficient than conventional air conditioning, while occupying lesser space and costs almost the same as conventional air conditioning systems.

There may be many other technologies that can help improve air quality, reduce energy consumption, and establish a safe environment for people. But a large amount of operational data we have gathered over the past decade shows that radiant cooling, smart building systems, and green buildings are among the proven key aspects to be considered for workplaces in India, and other parts of the world.

Views are personal. The author is regional head-Infrastructure & Green Initiatives, Infosys.

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