Looking at Google’s latest mobility statistics it’s interesting to see that the second national lockdown in England looks very different from the first. More people are working from the office compared to back in the summer.
One assumption might be that, while many businesses had to close last time as they were unprepared, more have now made the necessary changes that allow their people to use the workplace in safety. They will have put in place better processes and used technology to remain open, whether that might be utilising people counting, automatically track and tracing visitors using access control, temperature monitoring or using video analytics to assist with people flow and spacing. Obviously, there are many businesses such as pubs, restaurants, arts venues and non-essential shops that have no choice in the matter, and they deserve our sympathy, but more importantly, our custom as soon as they are fully open again.
Will all these premises look the same when they reopen fully, however? An article in the Financial Times last week considered how our experience of buildings is based on our physical interaction with them, and suggests that this is changing as a result of the pandemic.
It’s an interesting argument. Humans by design are very tactile creatures. The writer notes how opening a door handle is akin to a handshake, and describes how the things we take for granted – such as pressing a light switch, turning a key, opening a door or stepping up stairs – all define how we experience a building. A sturdy door handle says a lot about a building, in the same way that the reassuring click of a light switch inspires confidence. Now, with COVID, that interaction is gone; we are discouraged from touching architectural ironmongery such as door handles, or indeed any other surfaces that might harbour the virus. In effect we are losing one of our key senses.
I would argue that this interaction has been in decline for some time now, but perhaps the current pandemic will accelerate this megatrend. When was the last time you walked into an office and had to turn on the lights? Much of the commercial spaces we inhabit have been automated; with lighting, heating and air conditioning all handled centrally. In a growing number of high-end commercial spaces we gain access to our workplaces with touchless or hands-free access control – one of the megatrends identified for 2021 if you recall – while the rise of the mobile credential means that fobs, proximity cards and other physical devices used to gain access may have had their day.
But how will our interaction with a building change as a result of digitisation? The technology we use to navigate a workplace, although increasingly digital not physical, will still characterise that building. It must of course do its job, but it must also reassure and support the function of the building. An industrial building such as a factory or warehouse must feel resilient. A modern office must exude efficiency. University lecture halls must aid concentration and be secure, while managing large volumes of students ‘seamlessly’ moving around, while a data centre has to keep data secure from internal and external threat, above any other requirement.
Now, with the added dimension of increased health and safety, there is the opportunity to use technology such as access control, video surveillance, intruder detection and, above all, analytics, to improve the way we navigate and operate in buildings. As the way we move around buildings becomes even more seamless and automated, so the greater understanding gained from knowing how people use spaces should drive greater efficiencies in terms of cost saving, lower energy usage and, of course, maintaining safe working practices.
If this sounds like a massive departure, consider the humble car key. Thirty years ago, we used a key to unlock a car door. If it was raining, you would curse as you fumbled for the key and, when it was icy, even getting the key in the lock could be difficult. Some twenty years ago we started seeing the emergence of radio controlled key fobs which would open the doors with a click, although a key was still needed to start the ignition. Some five years ago, touchless technology meant that simply walking up to a car and opening the handle was sufficient to gain entry, while the car could recognise the presence of a fob in the driver’s pocket and, if present, the car could be started with the press of a button. Most recently, access to some cars can be gained through an app on a smartphone. The car key is becoming redundant, and I would argue that we hardly notice its demise, let alone mourn its departure.
This points to the way that we get used to new technologies, and the progress they bring very quickly. I noticed many years ago that automatically powered doors were very much standard in Sweden, yet these are still very rare in the UK. Post-COVID, can we expect to see more speed gates, automatic turnstiles, powered doors and access control gained through mobile credentials. If so, we might expect to see fewer door handles, as ones and zeroes guide our paths through buildings, rather than chunks of steel screwed to doors.
The big question is whether, as we go contactless across our lives, we lose touch with the very things we like to touch and feel, such as the buildings we move around in?
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