Jun 18, 2021

LED luminaires with sensors could be one tech tool for facilitating a safe return to the office

By Tanuj Mohan

The Future-Proofed WorkplaceSince the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the U.S. on December 14, 2020, and as more Americans get vaccinated, many companies and employees are now wondering about the post-pandemic office and the return to a new normal.

When can we return to work? How many people will be allowed in the office? What safety measures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19? What if I’m exposed to COVID-19 at the office? What will my schedule look like? There are many questions companies will need to answer and there are still many uncertainties. We are only starting to have a sense of how the post-pandemic workforce will evolve.

According to a Gallup poll, nearly ⅔ of U.S. workers who began to work remotely during the pandemic have indicated they would like to continue doing so. On the other hand, the pandemic has also revealed the limitations of working remotely, from lack of social interaction to technology challenges. While many agree the office may never return to what we once considered “normal,” the office will remain a critical component for companies, perhaps becoming a hub that offers an agile space for collaboration, connection and creativity.

Whatever the future holds as far as employee schedules, as employers look to make their workplaces safer, many are searching for best practices to help guide necessary modifications to physical offices. Part of that solution is right above us.

LED lighting, smart sensors and data can play a critical role in helping businesses solve tomorrow’s biggest challenges, including challenges we never anticipated, and future proof buildings to adapt to evolving needs and environments. The solution has been years in the making.

The first half of the solution is LED lighting. Years ago, we discovered LED lighting was an ideal opportunity to introduce sensor grids into building infrastructure. LEDs are intrinsically direct current (DC) devices that only pass current in one polarity and are typically driven by DC voltage sources. The upgrade to LED lighting served as the launching pad for the introduction of Internet of Things (IoT) systems in commercial real estate.

Smart sensors are the other half of the solution. Software-defined smart sensors typically measure ambient light, occupancy, energy consumption and temperature, along with offering Bluetooth capabilities and wireless connectivity. Open-source data and edge processing capabilities all help to future proof buildings, and never has that been so apparent as with the current global pandemic.

LED lighting and smart sensors have proven to be an ideal match. For years, lighting and commercial IoT systems have been playing a synergistic role with LED fixtures serving as the perfect location for IoT smart sensors. In turn, the sensors make each light individually intelligent, bringing programmability and energy savings benefits.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed. However, the solution remained the same: LED lighting, smart sensors and granular building data. The same data stream that provided information on how we utilize the office remained valuable and applicable especially during COVID-19 when physical distancing became the priority. Smart lighting and IoT systems were already an exceptional tool for maximizing office real estate, and that same functionality is now being deployed to enable a safe return to work.

The new pain points that have emerged offer new possibilities too. We can now use IoT data to solve more and more pain points, and the future potential is virtually limitless.

Smart lighting plays a significant role in helping people return to the workplace safely. This has offered a new use-case and is a perfect example of why LED lighting featuring smart sensors is so important for companies. We are able to equip executives, facilities managers and building occupants with critical data to keep employees safe as well as help them be productive. These capabilities will only expand into the future, including new apps leveraging data streams and deeper integrations with other employee-facing applications and services.

With the pandemic, we witnessed how the IoT sensory system was truly learning, functioning as a human being with its brain. It helps to analyze current and past building data, including heat maps and motion trail patterns, to identify densely populated areas in the office, common traffic patterns and bottlenecks, and can even pinpoint what time these typically occur.

Using this data, building owners and operators can implement strategies to help reduce employee-to-employee contact and encourage physical distancing. Planners can see what is working and what is not, and continue to proactively and swiftly reduce contact risk. Additionally, the data identifies where people have been throughout the work day to focus cleaning and ensure and even validate that cleaning crews concentrate in these areas.

Smart lighting and IoT systems went one step further beyond physical distancing when we discovered the importance of contact tracing. The same asset tracking that smart lighting and IoT-based real-time location services provide can help to manage contact tracing, the process of the identification of individuals who may have come into contact with an infected person, and subsequent collection of further information about these contacts.

As we tested the process of contact tracing, privacy was taken very seriously. For example, depending on the organization, managers could issue a badge that tracks how an individual moves throughout the space, and identify where a person walked and what they might have touched along the way. An interaction with another person or a piece of equipment—a copy machine, a coffee maker, etc.—might warrant isolation and facilitate self-quarantine to help manage and prevent COVID breakouts in the building and among teams.

A light source once served only one purpose: to illuminate a space. It now brings entirely new meaning to building operations. This is a significant opportunity for those who design, specify and manage lighting systems to understand the full capability and benefits of an IoT sensory system.

The world of connected lighting and IoT is an adventure, and we find something new every day. Moving forward from the pandemic, we will continue to face new challenges, which can range from internal organizational challenges to outside issues that impact the workforce, at the office or at home. If we can continue letting the “thing” become smart—letting the buildings learn—we will continue to adapt and truly realize what it means to be future proof.


Tanuj Mohan

Tanuj Mohan

Tanuj Mohan is the co-founder, chief technology officer and chief product officer at Enlighted, where he is focused on building technologies that revolutionize the way intelligent buildings and people... More info »