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Creating Safe, Flexible Spaces for a Transformed Workforce

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office space
(Source: Pixbay)

When we can finally return to our office buildings, we’re likely to approach them using a different frame of reference – that is, will we be safe in them? As a result, many building owners and managers will be investing in new technologies to instill confidence in employees that their health will be protected.

To determine which technologies to implement and then implement them successfully, Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) must work together more closely than ever before. And they will need to keep the following three issues top of mind.

Strategies for smarter, healthier office buildings

Many companies are considering deploying fewer desks spread farther apart. A possible consequence of this is the need for flexible scheduling, with fewer employees working at the office at the same time. This would require new applications that enable employees to schedule their time at the office and find the right desk in the right place to balance optimal social distancing and collaboration – complete with real-time notifications of when not to come to the office because health issues have been detected.

Minimizing crowd size in shared spaces requires new sensor technology to monitor the number of people in a room and enable automatic alerts when the number exceeds a threshold. Some companies are implementing touchless employee kiosks and entry access controls and using thermal cameras to monitor body temperatures. In addition, many businesses will use this opportunity to accelerate the adoption of smart building technologies, such as HVAC systems, lighting controls, and elevator monitoring. IT and OT must ensure these new technologies integrate with the health and safety programs and provide visibility into building operations to help reduce long-term costs.

Network requirements for supporting new applications and devices

Integrating new health and safety applications into buildings requires a variety of new smart technologies, including internet of things (IoT)-powered security cameras and sensors, smart LED lights, connected hi-def digital signage, and other building automation solutions. The growing use of video conferencing requires additional bandwidth to provide hi-def video and audio quality and integrate conferencing with other communications and collaboration tools. At-home employees also need fast, secure access to critical resources that keep them connected to office life, including sufficient VPN capacity. Finally, managers must rely on new cloud technologies to obtain the visibility and controls they need to manage their teams across any location.

Because these applications often interact in real-time, IT and OT will need a centralized analytics platform to manage the entire infrastructure as a single, converged wired and wireless network, blurring the distinction between the LAN and WLAN. This converged network will demand huge amounts of bandwidth, low latency, high reliability, and strong resilience to network interruption or degradation. This means most buildings over a couple of years old will need to be retrofitted. For example:

  • Greater reliance on edge devices requires upgrading the back-end infrastructure, including new multi-gigabit switches and high bandwidth Cat 6A cabling that supports 90 watts of Power over Ethernet (PoE) and Power over HDBaseT, as well as Software Defined Video Over Ethernet (SDVoE).
  • Keeping everyone always connected anywhere in a building requires increased deployment of in-building cellular, including fixed wireless access (FWA) services and new private CBRS and other 4G LTE or 5G NR cellular networks.
  • A secure digital infrastructure requires a single pane of glass network management system that provides visibility and network authentication for connected devices.

Partnerships to ensure project success

Getting these new technologies deployed depends on building owners and managers partnering with companies that specialize in designing, delivering, configuring, and installing wireless, wireline, broadband, and networking technologies. The first step is to work with an expert in connectivity solutions for communications networks to create a comprehensive plan for meeting current and future needs. The connectivity expert will also have a list of companies authorized to configure and install the recommended solutions – a key to avoiding future issues.

IT and OT must also fully understand how to coordinate their activities in the transformed building environment. For example, to provide new services and ensure building safety and regulatory compliance, OT teams need the ability to manage the network, including Wi-Fi, PoE, and IoT protocols such as Zigbee and LTE-M. OT teams also need to understand how much bandwidth is available on the network, what is consuming it, and how future plans will impact business users.

While adoption of these specific applications is being driven by the pandemic, all the enabling technologies were already seeing widespread adoption in office buildings prior to last year because they help organizations improve employee experiences, control building management costs, and respond to business and social trends. As a result, every investment made now in modernizing the connectivity and communications infrastructure for the post-pandemic era will pay even greater dividends over the next decade.

Ed Solis is Vice President Americas Enterprise Infrastructure at CommScope.