Retrofit for new workplace cultures

Brett Smith, General Manager EMEA of Ideal Industries
Brett Smith,

New working practices will require the installation of complex data networks in existing buildings, says Brett Smith

Adapting Habits & Environments

With the Government now cautiously advising people to get back to work, the reality is that Covid-19  has changed  working lifeimmeasurably.

The Covid-19 crisis prompted different working practises during lockdown. As the lockdown is eased and we begin to return to workplaces, working practices must adjust again. The transition to increased working from home is likely to lead to more flexible work arrangements that combine office and home working. Employers and employees who previously discounted the possibility of homeworking now perceive it as a viable option and there are clear advantages when it comes to the size of office companies require and the productivity gains from taking commute time. However, it is clear that human contact and face-to-face interactions with colleagues and customers are also important, so it seems likely that many will opt for a hybrid of home and office working.

Whether companies opt for this flexible hybrid model, or for a full time return for all office-based personnel, they will need to think differently about what smart systems need to be embedded in workplaces to track staff and visitors.

Reconfiguring for New Workplace Cultures

The hot-desking, agile-working practices championed by forward-focused businesses in the past are now problematic in terms of cleaning regimes and track and trace, so we are likely to see a return to designated workstations where space allows.  

This may not be possible for companies where agile working is embedded in the company culture because there will not be sufficient space within the existing office to accommodate all members of the team at the same time. Social distancing requirements will put further pressure on space and any hybrid approach to combining home and office working means that allocated desks could be unoccupied for part of the week, which is operationally and financially inefficient.

The two most obvious solutions to this (depending on the type of business, staffing levels and home/office working routines) are retaining a hot-desking/agile office model based on a booking system for non-allocated desks, or opting for an allocated desk-share model, with a buddy system to allow the same cycle of workstation use by two or three colleagues each week.

In either of these scenarios, a booking system will be required and the most robust way to achieve this is by creating a smart-enabled office layout that tracks who is operating from which desk in real time. Effective booking systems will also be needed for meeting rooms and break-out areas. There may also be a need to alter office floor plans to implement effective social distancing at workstations, in common areas such as tea/coffee points and toilets, and in meeting rooms and circulation areas. It makes sense to implement these revised layouts and introduce smart enabled technology at the same time, as part of the reconfiguration of M&E services.

Efficient, Effective Retrofitting

It’s likely that all these considerations will be built into new office developments, but, for existing buildings, retrofit will needed to convert conventional properties to smart offices. In this way, the pandemic will provide a catalyst to upgrade, futureproof and maximise the benefits of smart technologies in ways that go beyond the immediate priorities of track and trace for staff and visitors.

The challenge is in delivering those upgrades quickly and effectively with minimum impact for businesses that are now trying to return to business as usual and make up for a period of unprecedented disruption.  This will involve procurement of suitable hardware, and will require upgrades to data networks to ensure robust and reliable systems.

Installation of these complex data networks will involve a large number of terminations and each termination requires attention to detail to ensure a robust and compliant connection, with consistent installation regardless of the number of installers working on the project or the time pressures on site.

Data networks traditionally require field-termination of CAT5e, CAT6 of CAT6A cables using RJ45 modular plugs. The more complex the network, the greater the number RJ45 assemblies and terminations required. Conventional installation methods for RJ45s require conductors to be trimmed to an exact length before the plug is placed onto the cable. If the conductors are too short, circuits will remain open, if they are too long, there is a risk that the pairs could be left exposed outside of the plug body or cable jacket, which could hinder performance on the network and generally results in a 60% failure rate.

The time-consuming attention to detail required for conventional RJ45 data terminations and the pressing need to upgrade offices to smart technology to enable track and trace as soon as possible may be another catalyst for change. Single-piece feed-thru connectors and application tools are now available, which eliminate the need for installers to assemble a three-piece connector, even when working with CAT6 cable. This makes terminations faster, simpler and more consistent, whether using CAT5e, CAT6 or CAT6A cables.  Conductor wires do not need to be accurately trimmed to a specific length; instead, installers simply need to remove an appropriate section of jacket, remove the centre spline if there is one, untwist the pairs into the right order, feed through the connector, then terminate and shave the excess with the feed-thru tool.

A Chance to Create Lasting Change

While many office buildings are already equipped with a BMS and automated systems to control HVAC and lighting, the sector has been slow to adopt the full capabilities of smart technology; perhaps because there was no compelling business case for the level of investment involved. The pandemic has driven a juggernaut through the status quo, providing a compelling reason to expedite the office sector’s transition to smart buildings. The next step is to think smarter about how that can be achieved with as much speed and consistency as possible by adopting the latest approaches to installing data networks.

Brett Smyth is General Manager EMEA of Ideal Industries

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