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Digital drives workplace trends in the Nordics

Workplaces are rapidly changing in Nordic countries, driven by digital technologies such as artificial intelligence

Rapid advancements in digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) are driving significant change in the Nordic real estate sector and quickening the pace of transition to smart offices, factory buildings and high-street retail spaces.

While existing and emerging technologies remain the primary catalyst for change, the real estate industry’s transition is heavily motivated by a more robust focus on embracing energy-reduction technology to support the construction of next-generation smart buildings. 

The broader adoption of AI and digital technologies in smart building design is also influenced by the transformative nature of working practices across the Nordic countries that was triggered by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

In Sweden, the mass return of employees to normal office functions during the first quarter of 2022 coincided with a national multi-sector debate on “workplace wellbeing” that looked at how AI and digital technologies, integrated into building design, could be used to deliver safer and superior environments for all employees.     

A link between the workplace environment and higher safety measures being demanded by trade unions at employers in Sweden features in a research-based report from real estate group Wihlborgs that was undertaken in partnership with NAVET Analytics and Quilt.AI. 

The office in a new look (Kontoret i Ny Tappning) joint report identifies AI and digitisation as the key factors in producing permanent changes in how employees have connected wellness issues with their work environment and employer.

Covid’s legacy has shifted to working trends and hybrid solutions influenced by advances in AI and digital technologies, said the report. It observed that AI- led innovations in workplaces, such as internal lighting, building security, heating and communications, will become more acutely customised to meet the future needs of employees and corporate productivity.  

New trends identified in the report show that the national conversation on workplace wellness has shifted to raised expectations of work environments among employees, said Ulrika Hallengren, CEO of Wihlborgs.

“What we now know is that hybrid solutions are here to stay,” she said. “This includes higher requirements on leadership, organisation and technological preconditions. This places the function of the office in an entirely new light.

“The workplaces of tomorrow are expected to be even more attractive and designed as meeting places for innovation and development. Change in this area will become an important part of an employer’s brand.”

Read more about smart workplaces

The report used AI to analyse data relating to the core lessons learned by both employers and staff regarding the effect of Covid-19 lockdowns on business operations and work performance.

It looked at connected issues such as working from home, reduced office use, the physiological effects of lower levels of social interaction, and the potential value to employers and employees of developing productivity-based hybrid working concepts that meet the changing needs of labour, societal changes and lifestyle.

Across Nordic markets, the advent of Covid-19 accelerated interest in digital and AI systems for companies and real estate owners facing the challenge of reopening their offices and restarting their businesses. Employers also sought to identify new, cost-efficient innovations to provide employees with guaranteed safe and healthy workspaces in smart design buildings that delivered energy efficiency and CO2 neutrality.

Advancements in AI and machine learning (ML) are proving to be important drivers in helping Nordic employers create safer and healthier workplaces, said Tuomas Pippola, CEO of Nuuka Solutions, a Helsinki-headquartered firm providing specialised IT, AI and internet of things solutions to smart office and intelligent factory buildings.  

“AI and ML have proven to outperform human input in many areas, including in the labour-intensive adjusting and optimising of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning [HVAC] systems needed to secure optimal indoor conditions,” said Pippola. “AI software is being used to adjust HVAC systems between four and 5,000 times daily. That is over 600 adjustments per hour or 10 per minute. This would be impossible to achieve manually.”

Greater energy efficiency

The software systems used to deliver greater energy efficiency and CO2 reductions in smart design offices and factories are programmed to make adjustments based on the building’s earlier performances. To this end, the technology uses real-time data from both internal and external sensors that monitors CO2 levels in different areas of the building while tracking outside temperatures and potential levels of pollution.

Similarly, the wider deployment of AI and digitisation is being embraced in the design of industrial-use smart factory buildings. More Nordic industrial companies are investing for the future and eager to incorporate new and emerging digital and AI-based technology in their plants, mills and factories, said Juha Näkki, CEO of Helsinki-based technology solutions group Etteplan

“Digital transformation is gaining momentum within industrial manufacturing,” said Näkki. “A clear sign of this development is the rapid growth in investments in the internet of things – the combination of intelligent machines, equipment, people and processes.”

Interest within the smart factory domain is for cost-efficient solutions that come equipped with AI-led intelligent building automation systems. Systems generally range from process and automation engineering to software design and technical documentation.

The latest smart building contracts increasingly feature universal, open control and automation technology that can be used in a variety of applications, ranging from computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine tools to intelligent building automation systems.

“Demand spans single-point solutions to complete solution-independent integration of an existing or planned factory,” said Näkki.

Smart office environments

In the Nordics, the move to developing smart office building environments took a significant leap forward in 2020 when the state agency Statistics Sweden partnered with Castellum to employ AI-sensor systems to utilise its meeting spaces and conference rooms more efficiently and effectively for the 750 employees at the organisation’s headquarters in Örebro.

The project involved the installation of sensors in Statistics Sweden’s conference rooms in order to measure occupancy and staff movements ahead of the primary objective to create “smart spaces”. The value-added data capture from this exercise was analysed and  served as the foundation to design and create optimally located meeting rooms and other office spaces throughout the complex.  

In Sweden, the deployment of AI is also being more widely used to develop “smart retail” in-store design and customer-focused interactive concepts. The evolution of AI-aided in-store innovations is taking place against the backdrop of retailers rethinking their operating and sales strategies as more consumers opt to shop online.

Fashion retailer Tommy Hilfiger converted its centre-city flagship store at Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm into a digital showroom, where stockists can view sample collections in 360 degrees on touchscreens. The store is using a combination of  augmented reality tools and AI to enhance its overall retail environment experience for stockists and other partners.  

The intelligent use of advanced technologies, to both transform in-store design and maximise the value of available store space, is becoming a fundament part of modern retailing, said Jan Antonsson, Nordic sales director at Tommy Hilfiger.

“The digital and AI technology that is now available makes things easier for us, both with business-to-business sales and sales direct to the consumer,” said Antonsson. “Making the best use of these technologies helps us reduce the time it takes from product idea to the consumer holding the garment in their hand and making a purchase decision.”

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