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Lower occupancy rates in offices demands a systems overhaul

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The shift to working from home has sped up the desire for flexible working.


Office landlords need to get to grips with the ever-evolving needs of tenants and adapt their business models to remain relevant. In multi-let offices, addressing current safety and wellbeing concerns in a collaborative way can achieve just that.

Ventilation and temperature control systems now need to be able to respond to the occupational pattern of the asset and fluxes in external factors such as outside temperature and humidity (both current and expected). 

Measuring and controlling indoor air humidity is not common practice in commercial buildings but it should be. At low humidity, viruses such as COVID-19 thrive while our immune response is hindered – dry indoor air during the winter is already a significant cause of seasonal infectious diseases [1].

How to cope with the change?

Achieving responsiveness and meeting demand effectively (as well as complying with COVID-19 requirements) requires manual input for many building management systems. The changing occupation levels in a socially distanced office presents a whole new challenge for facilities managers and site teams. Offices are no longer operating anywhere near 100% occupancy, but the systems installed are running on the assumption that they are. 

The impact this has on the effectiveness of systems such as air conditioning cannot be understated, and it is imperative that landlords and tenants work together to enable safe and healthy workspaces without wasting energy unnecessarily. By sharing desk and room booking data and reviewing occupancy patterns on a regular basis, plant running times can be adjusted accordingly. As COVID-19 ventilation guidelines require more fresh air, and therefore more energy, carefully reducing running times now will lead to significant energy savings. At the same time, investment in building automation and control systems should be evaluated, as the case for implementing them now will likely have a swifter ROI. In the current economic climate, cost reduction initiatives will be welcomed by tenants. 

The change in occupancy levels also means the benchmarks we have been using to assess energy performance in offices and to spot outliers need re-baselining. Furthermore, air quality has been pushed up the agenda. It is important the benchmarks address the intricate relationship between energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality in order to maintain their relevance. 

Implementing technologies to monitor occupancy, indoor air quality and plant efficiency can help in evaluating current setups and drive valuable insights on how space is being used by its occupiers in real time. These factors are key to understanding the current and future requirements of occupiers, helping to prepare for renewal discussions. 

The future is digital 

As property technology and occupier expectations continue to develop rapidly, building management systems are at an increased risk of lagging behind this advancement. We are seeing developments such as the use of digital twin technology – which can reveal how an office operates in real time, compared to its original purpose – change the way we understand our assets. Data is certainly king and will prove essential in the future provision of an efficient, healthy and adaptable workplace.

[1] https://news.yale.edu/2020/03/30/hopes-pandemic-respite-spring-may-depend-upon-what-happens-indoors

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About the Author

Andres Guzman is Head of Sustainability.

With over a decade of industry experience across different sectors, he focuses on improving Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) performance at asset and portfolio level for a range of occupier and investor clients. Andres is responsible for guiding the integration of sustainability into core service lines and provides strategic advice on net zero strategies, climate risk, carbon compliance (MEES, ESOS, SECR), non-financial reporting (GRESB, UNPRI, TCFD) and the impact that wellness trends have on service delivery.

For more information, please email andres.guzman@colliers.com.