Automation in Real Estate: Automation, Healthy Buildings and the Future of Work

In this third edition of our Automation series, the team worked with Selina Short, EY Partner and Global Real Estate Innovation Leader, to discuss the rising challenges of health in the workplace and how automation can help augment and assist with some of those challenges. Guest speakers included Mike Norton, Global Head of Property Management, and Erik Umlauf, Managing Director, at JP Morgan Chase, as well as Elizabeth Brink, Principal, at Gensler. Their combined experience resulted in fascinating insights into the design and technology interventions that we can enlist to achieve healthy and productive work environments. These industry experts also reiterated that we already have many of the tools necessary for building healthy and sustainable workplaces.


Automation continues to be one of the biggest buzzwords in the real estate industry with much discussion about the benefits and best practices for implementation. Organizations are now beginning to see the benefits of automation as well as how they can automate their processes to ensure their businesses are ready to thrive and compete in a disrupted world.

To help organizations think about what automation means, EY and MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab have been producing a series of webinars that focus on the future of automation in real estate. In essence, cutting through the hype and exploring what’s happening now to understand what will come next.

Irrespective of our geographical individualities, the concepts of how and where we work are facing a new reality in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic that has stopped the world in its tracks. While we all hope to return to what we once knew, a building’s operations, design, and functions have changed drastically, as we all try to maintain safe distancing to help reduce the spread of a virus. However, this preparation is not solely reserved for COVID-19: the world we return to will need to respond to global challenges more efficiently.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History

Over the course of history, the world has endured a number of pandemics that have shaken the world. Looking back, we have found that cities and people tend to evolve in four key areas – The economy, design, technology, and governance. These four key areas generally evolve to enhance public health, minimize the loss of life, minimize the loss of economic productivity, and lead to an increase in technological invention that improves the human condition. As a result, new systems of organization are put in place to create a safer society.

Throughout history, the world has suffered more than 20 pandemics which collectively have been responsible for millions of deaths and will are likely to happen again in the future. Tracking design, technological, economic, and governance responses and in cities in buildings is a part of humanity’s way of developing survival mechanisms.

We find that the recommended responses towards COVID-19 are not unfamiliar to the ones given over the last one hundred years.


What is a Healthy Building?

The idea of a healthy building is not a new concept, having been in existence for centuries. The Romans, for example, made links between causes of disease and methods of prevention, leading to the construction of sewers, aqueducts, public toilets, and large public baths.

In modern times, however, the average American spends up to 90% of their time indoors, be it in an office, a school, or a home. It is during this time indoors that they are exposed to the largest amount of pollutants.

In the U.S. alone, the savings and productivity gains from improved indoor environments are estimated anywhere between $25 and $150 billion per year. It is also projected that by 2030 there will be 52 million deaths from chronic diseases caused by poor lifestyle. There is also a direct correlation between poor ventilation rates and higher instances of short-term sick leave, asthma, and respiratory infection among building occupants. Given this, incorporating design features that contribute to a healthier office building can have a significant impact on our wellbeing.

Currently, the WHO defines a healthy building as a space that supports the physical, psychological, social health, and well-being of people. While this definition is broad in terms of scope, the current pandemic clearly illustrates that many buildings still fail to meet these guidelines.


The features of a Healthy Building can be seen as an extension to the features of a GREEN Building, additionally taking a more cohesive approach towards the design of the building to encourage more occupancy activity.

Across the leading certification agencies, we have found a number of common features that are considered best practices in guiding the built environment towards healthy building standards: ergonomic furnishings, natural daylight, operable shading, natural views, green purchasing policies, zero asbestos, fitness rooms, indoor air quality (IAQ), and a no-smoking policy.


Adjusting to a New Reality

As offices around the world begin to open up, and restrictions are loosened to allow people to return to work, businesses need a plan to adapt to the increasing personal concerns of their employees. 80% of staff (EY Return to Work Survey 2020) want to return to work, but expect that changes will be implemented.

The workplace has to respond to the increased demand for healthier workplaces while still retaining irreplaceable key elements that employees crave for: collaboration and interacting with co-workers (Gensler Work from Home Survey 2020).

In addition, COVID-19 will create a different set of intentions for design and curation of spaces moving forward.

Impacts to Design Moving Forward

Automation Technology Just Got A Job!

In a post COVID reality, automation technology just got a job in real estate. Prior to February 2020, there were discussions surrounding the business case to employ automation tools such as big data, machine learning, robotics, and IoT.  Today, those discussions have shifted with leaders in the industry. Here, automation can help get an innovative and creative workforce back to an office environment more safely. This shift may be surprising to some, but the old rule of $3, $30, $300 matters here, where companies annually spend about $3 per square foot on operational costs, $30 per square foot on rent and approx. $300 per square foot on productivity. This means that maintaining productivity is worth marginal expenses in certain technologies to drive safety and efficient use of space.

Automation Technology Just Got A Job!


Healthy buildings as a space that supports the physical, psychological, and social health and well-being of people was lacking a broad mandate prior to COVID-19. Moreover, the connection between healthy buildings and automation is unclear to some.

However, the implementation of automation through an array of sensors, building management tools, touchless technologies, and robotic helpers will make our buildings healthier and safer. This will become increasingly important as businesses return to a new normal. Design will now shift its focus on touchless workplaces, increasing outside airflow, less condensed office environments, and scanning technologies that help monitor, detect, communicate, and forecast the wellness of its occupants.

Ultimately, the current pandemic crisis has raised the stakes for automation technology and healthy buildings to be incorporated into our daily lives and help ensure resilient working as we move forward.

As predominantly social beings, humans seek to engage in human interaction to inspire, create, invent, and produce. Although we are enabled by a suite of telecommunications and virtual spaces to help us cope and survive with living remotely during the current pandemic, there is a call to bring us back to live, work and play environments safely. More importantly, this is an opportunity to create a greater end-user experience for a building’s occupants. Through thoughtful planning and design, we have the opportunity to help create spaces for a better and more resilient society.