Why flexible working has the power to change our cities
In this column, published in three local dailies, Andrew Sonta, engineer and Tenure track assistant professor at the Smart Living Lab explains how evolving patterns of behavior have called into question the value of the physical office space and add an additional layer of complexity to optimal building design and operation.
We have entered a new era of building use and work patterns. A recent survey of knowledge workers in the US and Australia showed that 43% of workers in 2022 worked in a hybrid format, compared to office only (35%) and remote only (22%). According to managers of large building portfolios, these trends have resulted in offices remaining at 50% occupancy compared to pre-pandemic levels in the US (57% across Europe). These evolving patterns of behavior have called into question the value of the physical office space and add an additional layer of complexity to optimal building design and operation.
With more time spent working from home, our office buildings can become more space- and energy-efficient. Realizing this opportunity requires deploying new technologies to ensure that buildings heat, cool, ventilate, and light spaces only where and when it is needed. But while there are environmental benefits to flexible building operation, less time in the office also presents risks. Despite the benefits associated with working from home —like flexibility and job satisfaction —research has shown that in-person interaction remains a cornerstone of effective work, particularly when it comes to creativity, innovation, and trust-building. In hybrid work formats, it can be difficult to know how to take advantage of these multiple benefits. If I do choose to go to the office, will I have that water-cooler conversation that produces a creative spark? Leveraging modern data-driven sensing strategies that learn how and when the building supports such interactions offers one path forward, as our recent research shows. In the end, it will be essential to optimize our buildings and our behavior to save space and energy and to promote the primary goal of supporting companies and other organizations that use buildings.”.
Curbing urban sprawl
Being more efficient with our office space also has the potential to free real estate for other purposes. As many cities in Europe and elsewhere struggle with housing shortages, converting freed office space to housing could help to address these shortages while curbing urban sprawl. It also means we can increase land-use diversity in places that have been dominated by offices, such as the densest parts of our urban cores. This could have multiple benefits: recently, we have seen that land-use diversity is positively associated with social cohesion. One reason may be that it encourages more walking, as the trips that are made in daily life are more easily made on foot. In other words, improving walkability may have social benefits in addition to clear reductions in carbon footprints and positive health impacts.
Whether on the urban scale or within the office building, it is important that we seek solutions for our built environment that simultaneously consider—and enhance—our social and environmental goals. The new way we work has the power to change our cities. It is up to us whether this will be for the better or for the worse.
Andrew Sonta, Tenure track assistant professor, head of ETHOS Lab, (Civil) Engineering and Technology for Human-Oriented Sustainability, Smart Living Lab, Fribourg, EPFL.
- This article was published in April 2023 in three local dailies – La Côte (Vaud Canton), Le Nouvelliste (Valais Canton) and Arcinfo (Neuchâtel Canton) – under a joint initiative between EPFL and ESH Médias to showcase the R&D being carried out at EPFL on advanced construction techniques.