There is nothing new about flexible work hours, teleconferencing, hot desking and working from home. They have existed for years as possible ways to work but have never fully joined the mainstream for most modern businesses. But then COVID-19 happened. Since early 2020, work norms all over the world have been flipped on their heads. The number of people who are now intimately familiar with video calls and working from home (WFH) has increased exponentially. So has the expectation that, even after the pandemic, these flexible working options should continue to be available to anyone who wants them.
This has serious implications for how you manage a work environment. When you have all employees in an environment within the time frame of a standard working day, it’s relatively simple to manage heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. But with the rise of WFM, the number of people in a work environment can fluctuate day to day. Office hours may be stretched out to allow for smaller numbers to be in the office at one time, to encourage social distancing. And even if COVID-19 is not an immediate risk, the pandemic has heightened people’s understanding of their health and wellbeing at work.
Simply put, every hour that a work environment is occupied has an energy cost, because lights, air conditioning and other systems are running. If the occupant density is low during a given hour, the cost can start to outweigh the benefits. Thanks to COVID-19 measures, many businesses have had to rethink how they fill their space. This counters the pre-COVID-19 trend towards increased density.
Why have higher occupant density? It makes sense if you think like an accountant. More people per square metre means less rent per employee. It’s not so smart when viewed through a health and wellbeing lens, however. Higher occupancy rates make it easier to spread infection and harder to enforce any kind of social distancing.
From an HVAC point of view, air distribution patterns need more attention when you have more people working in an enclosed space. It’s healthier to have more outside air introduced through ventilation, rather than recirculating the same air, but more outside air means a significant increase in energy consumption. So even if your accountant is happy that the rent per person is down, the increased power bill you’re paying to keep the environment safe and healthy will soon take the smile off their face.
The choice isn’t between half empty, expensive offices and an overfilled, unhealthy work environment, however. It is possible to accommodate lower occupancy rates, extended office hours and an increased commitment to health and wellbeing, all without skyrocketing costs. Extended occupancy hours and higher outside air rate can mean the business case for installing energy recovery systems makes a lot of financial sense. It all comes down to a design approach that makes the most of the best available knowledge and technology.
There are other ways for your HVAC design to respond to the changing modern work environment too. A space can become much more responsive to what’s happening inside it when you include occupancy, CO2 and biological monitoring systems. Additional hygiene measures can be built in too, including UV-C treatment and anti-bacterial treatments. The key to it all is intelligent engineering design from experienced professionals. That’s where Jacksons can help.
We have a long history of working with the built environment. We’re experienced, senior engineers and energy specialists with a forward-looking approach to HVAC. We take the long-term view, working directly with property owners and tenants in a collaborative way, to design systems that deliver what’s required by both. We’re also experts at identifying and remedying existing problems, undertaking plant failure investigations, system forensics and root cause analysis so that mistakes aren’t repeated.
HVAC engineering is evolving rapidly, and we enjoy the challenge of evolving with it. We help train our industry in new technologies and approaches, work to educate the business community about the changing needs of work environments and champion the shift to smarter, more sustainable solutions. If you’ve seen big changes in your work environment since COVID-19, you might be questioning how to adapt or rethink how your space operates. We can help you ask the right questions and guide you towards an effective answer.