After two years of remote work, Americans are now coming back to their offices as the Covid-19 pandemic wanes and lockdown orders lift. For many of those workers, things might look like they remember, even as they return to a very different place.
During this pandemic, corporations around the country have been busy making their facilities cleaner, safer and more energy efficient by deploying smart-building technologies that have been around for years, but finally are seeing widespread adoption.
While the degree to which different industries shift to remote and hybrid work remains uncertain, it’s clear that many companies still value and require physical offices. As such, they’ve been investing in equipping those commercial facilities with lighting, heating and cooling, air filtration, sanitation and security systems that continuously monitor buildings and automatically optimize utility costs and resource utilization.
The business case driving these investments is very different today than what it was two years ago. While the concept of an autonomous building has existed for a long time, the introduction of these connected technologies into offices, manufacturing plants and retail outlets is just now taking off thanks to the hard lessons learned from the pandemic.
So many facilities managers were caught off guard when rapid closures hit in March of 2020 with the global outbreak of Covid-19. Back then, they still largely depended on building operators sitting in small rooms pulling switches to control the sequence of lights coming on and off, or to start heating employee-occupied areas in the morning. Lacking remote access capabilities, skeleton crews maintained those operations when most staff had to shelter in place. That exposed major operational inefficiencies.
We’ve seen many companies getting utility bills for the second quarter of 2020—a time during which occupancy plummeted by 90 percent—that were the same or even higher than the first quarter. Clearly those building control systems had not adapted well to drastic change.
The problem, however, isn’t just the immediate one that’s consumed all our lives for the last two years. The Covid-19 crisis hopefully will pass, but it probably won’t be the last event to bring this kind of uncertainty. Companies understand they need long-term solutions to effectively maintain their on-premises operations.
For starters, workers returning to corporate offices and production facilities insist on high-quality air-filtration and sanitation to protect them from the spread of infectious disease. Brands have similar expectations in retail environments, from banks to stores, and they are investing extensively to deploy the equipment and services needed to achieve those expectations.
And for companies in 2022, there’s another long-term challenge that’s top of mind: sustainability.
In many parts of the world, large enterprises, especially public sector organizations and government contractors, have made commitments to meeting net zero goals in the coming decades. They now routinely report ESG scores and expect environmental audits.
Executives are concerned about their organizations’ impact on the environment as well as the success of the business, as are shareholders, customers and even building occupants.
So there are multiple factors beyond simply turning off the lights when no one’s around that are driving demand for smart-building solutions. Further complicating matters, businesses need to balance what can be conflicting goals, such as reducing energy consumption verses powering indoor air-filtration systems. Achieving the optimal balance requires factoring in many variables such as building occupancy, the quality of external air and regional temperatures.
In that sense, the primary use case we’re seeing for smart-building technology is solving against all these imperatives at once, and by doing so maximizing value for the facility owners and tenants.
With these disruptive trends affecting our customers, Johnson Controls is undergoing a sweeping transformation of its own—a digital transformation that’s being empowered by Oracle. Like vendors in so many other technology-centered industries, our business is evolving toward an OpEx model to help customers better fund their digital transformation.
Not so long ago, a company would buy HVAC units, chillers, and air filtration systems, and then be responsible for ongoing maintenance and repair costs. But in recent years, especially during the pandemic, more companies are asking for connected systems supported by full-service packages that not only continuously monitor building operations, but guaranty outcomes of reliability, uptime and energy performance. To meet that shifting demand, in the last few months Johnson Controls has released new ‘outcome-based’ services around net zero emissions, indoor air quality, healthy buildings, and smart patient rooms. Those services are complemented by smart phone applications that help employees adhere to occupancy restrictions, promote social distancing, and ensure sanitation regiments are implemented.
With this expanding array of digitally enabled services, Johnson Controls is leading the industry by connecting more buildings and equipment than ever at a global scale.
The people now returning to reopened workplaces might notice visible upgrades and experiences as they walk through the doors, sit at their old desks, and see colleagues face-to-face for the first time in years. It is the more extensive use of smart building technologies behind the scenes that will make that experience better and safer for employees while creating more value for building owners.