In 2023, as low as 43% of office occupancy is the new normal. This is widely seen as the after-effect of the pandemic and the shift towards hybrid or remote work. Yet, here is another reason why employees may not be willing to return to the office that landlords neglect: the sick building syndrome.
Sick building syndrome is the condition affecting office workers, typically observed as headaches and respiratory problems, dizziness, nausea, flu-like feeling, difficulty in concentration and low energy. All of these are attributed to unhealthy factors in the working environment such as weak indoor quality, overcrowded layout of the space, or dust in the air due to poor cleaning.
Until recently, most people didn't know what sick building syndrome was. While individual employees thought that they suffered from these symptoms alone, landlords assumed that the issue was exaggerated. Today, the term and the syndrome both get recognized due to the expansion of the open-space offices where the syndrome takes place the most frequently.
A recent study finds that 75% of employees around the world are concerned about the air quality in their offices, while only 15% get informed about the actual air quality data in the office space where they spend up to 40 hours (or more) per week.
These numbers call for actions to be taken by employers and landlords, as this may in the long run cause lower concentration, productivity and job satisfaction – meaning, even lower office occupancy than we have in 2023.
In the post-pandemic world in which sustainable, healthy and human-centric ways of doing business are on peak, we have no chance to leave tenants' wellness unattended. As in many parts of our lives, technology helps address this by placing flexibility and user-centricity to the priority.
In order to make buildings well-poised against human needs, let's reimagine them as smartphones. When we buy a new phone, we tailor-make it for our own use, download or remove apps as our needs evolve. We can use the same logic in buildings we live in and work at. We can bring in technology solutions that serve different purposes, update them, and regulate them as our needs evolve. Today, thanks to PropTech, we're able offer great levels of space-as-a-service by continuously adapting solutions according to user demands.
Let's take a closer look at how.
How Technology Helps Tackle Sick Building Syndrome
In our recent webinar addressing this exact topic, we learn that today's existing technologies help tackle sick building syndrome to a great extent with the help of air quality monitoring systems – which are expected to reach the value of $6.2bn by 2027 globally.
While the air quality monitoring solutions market and customer demand are both growing, the global commercial real estate market still lacks the awareness and accelerated action towards making office spaces fresh air-friendly.
Wouter Kok from bGrid, a provider of wireless sensors that collects and analyzes data on occupancy, temperature, humidity, air quality, and energy consumption in buildings; comments on this: “Considering how important well-being is today and the office occupancy levels being low as a result of that, we should not be taking decisions on HVAC systems based on the information from decades ago. Today we have modern technologies that can provide us the real-time data on air quality, occupancy, space use, flow of people, energy consumption, light and sound intensity tracking and so much more.”'
There is a common myth that poor air quality only occurs in overcrowded meeting rooms but Kok argues: “In the last quarter of 2022, we closely watched the 50 buildings where our solution is active. With occupancy at 46% on average and space utilization level of 24%, we observed that the level of carbon dioxide was above 1,200 in 40% of the buildings' meeting rooms. This means that people are using only a small part of the available space, and still get poor air quality levels. When both property operators and occupiers see such data that they would normally not be able to see without the help of technology, they are able to take action, and improve the quality of space use, and accordingly, air quality.”
“We clearly see the need to design the flow of fresh air in a way to be adaptable according to the unique occupancy and utilization model of each space. This is where modern PropTech solutions help – by controlling the HVAC systems, offering both forecasted and real-time data on how the space is regularly being used, and how it is used at the very moment. This helps companies save energy, improve the air quality, and thus solve the sick building syndrome”.
Idriss Goossens, PropTech Lab's founder, provides insights from the Western Europe market, where we can observe great examples of improving building health and efficiency.
“As an example, Bouygues Immobilier's new mixed-use development in Lyon, France is very much focused on occupier health – with spaces dedicated to well-being, green spaces, a small health center, screens showing air quality and pollution data in several spots around the assets, shared spaces, a rooftop beehive and more. As a plus, the complex's energy produced locally by a green gas cogeneration plant provides hot water and electricity consumed immediately on site. We can get inspired by such approaches to improve the general health of buildings, not only the air quality,” says Goossens.
“Other examples can be seen in BPI or Allianz assets in Belgium and Luxembourg, where we observe urban farms built on building rooftops to have in-house, fresh vegetables available; or community activities around information-sharing on sustainability, wellness and health. We regularly observe these clear signs that the Western European market is in a huge transformation phase. In 2021 in Benelux, only 30% of real estate companies had clear innovation strategies in line with the customer experience and health; and in 2022 the number climbed to 84%. This brings great hope for change to the whole industry.”