Workplace of the future: Smart, sustainable and safe


Workplaces of the future: Smart, sustainable, safe

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world as we know it has changed and what once felt certain has now become open to opportunity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace – whether that be a commercial office building, an education facility, a technology hub or any other place where ‘workers’ gather.

Employees around the globe have now been hybrid or remote working for some time and have discovered both the pros and cons of merging home life and work life.

In this thinking paper, Aurecon’s Managing Director, Built Environment Australia, Tim Spies, considers the paradigm shift facing workplaces of the future. It identifies the key considerations for workplace design and takes into account the changes required to accommodate the new ‘normal’.

To offer a good return on investment for owners and developers, be cost effective for employers, and attractive to the current, new and emerging workforce, workplaces need to meet fundamental human needs, values and expectations as well as commercial imperatives.

Workers have enjoyed working from home – at least some of the time

Aurecon surveyed its staff in the built environment teams across Australia and New Zealand, as part of a more comprehensive Six Ideas by Dexus survey, researching the impacts of working remotely in early 2020. As a company with a high level of technology to assist with the delivery of projects, transitioning to remote working was relatively seamless.

However, collaborating and workshopping ideas within teams and with clients is a core part of the business and staff identified it as a challenge. Their feedback was:

The majority felt that their physical and mental health had either stayed the same or improved since working from home*


said they work from home productively – either about the same as before or better


enjoy working from home


had an easy transition to a virtual workplace


believed their carbon footprint had decreased, particularly due to the lack of commuting


missed working from the office, in particular the social interaction and sharing ideas/ brainstorming with others


would ideally like to continue working from home 1-2 days a week


would like to continue working from home 3-4 days a week once new ‘normal’ is achieved

*This is dependent on having an appropriate working from home set-up (including dedicated working environment and access to technology)

Ensuring employer commitments to health, safety and culture are met

COVID-19 created an alternate ‘normal’ working environment for those able to work from home. What was predicted as the future of their workplaces was consequently turned upside down, leaving employers and employees asking if things would ever be the same again.

What are the workplace health and safety liabilities for companies whose staff are working from home full-time or part-time?

How do you create a common company culture and sense of ‘belonging’ when employees are dispersed and disconnected for much of their working days?

Smart, sustainable, human-centred and safe workplaces are the answer. Facilities that support individual and team working, with flexible options for interaction based on physical distancing rules or personal preferences.

The case for smart, sustainable and safe workplace design

The workplace will need to be a human ‘magnet’ – creating spaces that support the goals of productivity, personal and professional fulfilment, as well as vision and purpose.

Smart design

For employers and building owners, using sensor data to inform decision-making on occupancy levels and the movement patterns of people can assist when planning work spaces and making decisions on building services that are sustainable and safe. These include contactless entry and exit, digital desk wayfinding, and smart clean technology.

For generations that have grown up with the internet, social media, digital technology, and the sharing economy, interactivity – smart, connected and integrated – is the future.

Sustainable design

The essence of sustainable is providing comfortable working environments that are flexible to changing needs, and combats the impacts of climate change. It also needs to be able to protect the health and safety of workers – people need to feel secure and trust that the building won’t adversely impact their health or wellbeing.

Before COVID-19 hit, organisations were already considering how to reduce their carbon footprint, and this has only been amplified by the realisation that our changed commuting and working habits can actually make a difference, with studies showing up to a 75 per cent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in several European cities during lockdowns.

At 25 King in Brisbane, Aurecon delivered a world-class, sustainable building for client Lendlease, and owner Impact Investment Group, achieving world-leading sustainability ratings, demonstrating that sustainable solutions are both achievable and affordable.

Click to enlarge.

  1. As at March 2020.
  2. The embodied carbon represents the cradle to constructed onsite lifecycle stages, saving accounts for the sequestered carbon locked within the timber structure, compared to an equivalent conventional reinforced concrete building.
  3. When compared to the GBCA Green Star Design and As-Built v1.1 benchmark.
  4. When compared to the GBCA Green Star Design and As-Built v1.1 benchmark.
  5. Workplaces, Wellness + Wood = Productivity

Safe design

Creating an environment where staff feel safe has always been a priority, but now that has become even more of a focus and technology will be a key enabler.

This extends to factoring in building services systems that include ventilation systems that create an individual ‘bubble’ effect which includes humidity to dry out moisture droplets or portable room air cleaners. It also includes layout with distancing in mind. It is of benefit that many modern office layouts are open floorplans, allowing plenty of flexibility in furniture arrangement.

Future workplaces could also incorporate quiet spaces for individual work, to cater for those for whom working from home is not an option.

How do we get there?

Focus on the people

Buildings aren’t about bricks and mortar or technology, but about the people who occupy them.

As well as creating ‘home-like’ environments featuring natural light and ventilation, thermal comfort, relaxing break-out areas, collaboration spaces and pods for concentrated work, the added demands of sanitisation, social distancing and disease mitigation measures will need to be incorporated.

The Internet of Things also has the potential to change how people interact with buildings, for instance, by being able to check occupancy levels on a smart-phone, in a physically-distanced world, before heading into the workplace.

Giving more information to employees will give them a sense that going into the workplace is a decision within their control, based on accurate and ‘real-time’ data. Likewise, for building managers, having data to help better manage the operation of a building that is only occupied some of the time, enables better decision-making around maintenance, energy-saving initiatives, long-term lease arrangements and upgrades.

Take a holistic approach

Smart investment in the workplace of the future will depend on assessing options across four key areas (Figure 2):

Figure 2: Assessing investment decisions across four key areas

Assessing investment decisions across four key areas

Access the lifetime cost benefits

Most of the costs of a building are in its operations. A holistic approach is needed to assess the lifetime ‘profitability’ of a building because everything from operating and maintenance costs, employee comfort and productivity, as well as the building’s ability to attract prospective tenants, needs to be considered.

The Green Building Council of Australia found that when Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) elements are given good attention, productivity increases by up to 10 per cent, on top of the improvement to overall health and well-being.

When you consider that 75 per cent of a building’s life-cycle cost is operational compared to 25 per cent in the development period (Figure 3), the investment focus should be in the operational phase.

BOTF2 lifecycle graph

BOTF2 lifecycle graph

Opportunity beckons

As we look to the future, how do we make sense of this new workplace paradigm, one that is complex and evolving?

What this means for the future and our ways of working, is that our workplaces will need to ‘work harder’ to fulfil our physiological needs, to connect, collaborate, create and enable organisations, employees and customers to thrive.

Instead of ‘mandating’, our workplace will need to be a human ‘magnet’ – creating the spaces that support the goals of productivity, personal and professional fulfilment, as well as vision and purpose.

This is a moment in history. As we make a quantum leap towards new ways of working, our built environment will be forever changed.

Workplace of the future

Workplace of the future

With so much uncertainty, how can organisations and employees prepare for what may or may not come next?

Aurecon shares insights on how we can design smart, sustainable and safe workplaces to accommodate new ways of flexible working from home or the office after COVID-19.

Explore our insights hereDOWNLOAD PDF

About the author

Tim Spies is Aurecon’s Managing Director, Built Environment, Australia, leading a community of talented professionals bringing the best minds together to work on some of the world’s greatest challenges, pushing the boundaries of innovation, digital and eminence. Tim is passionate about making human-centred design the centrepiece in exploring how technology and design can be leveraged to enhance project outcomes. With more than 25 years’ experience in the industry, he has worked on projects in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the United Kingdom that have had both financial and social significance. His roles have seen him involved with technically challenging projects that demand a high degree of expertise and commercial acumen including commercial office buildings, shopping centres, hospitals, laboratories and research facilities, data centers, sports arenas and education facilities.

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