Performance-Based Occupant Engagement: New Technology Tackles Long-Standing Challenges
Published on 6 January 2020
GRESB has a unique focus on stakeholder engagement as a pillar for the management of environmental, social, and governance for real asset companies. This concept encompasses a wide-range of goals and practices. One of the most central is the provision of occupant comfort and satisfaction. This seems simple enough, and I would hazard that almost every property company claims to provide at least adequate occupant comfort and satisfaction. Unfortunately, this aspiration is not realized in practice. Reams of academic literature show that commercial property does not consistently meet occupant expectations and many occupants are uncomfortable and dissatisfied.
A recent study by Park et. al. (2018) is illustrative. They reported on occupant satisfaction with thermal quality in 64 office buildings, including Federal offices, private sectoral financial institutions, sales, and marketing companies. The rigorous study found that 45% of building occupants were dissatisfied with thermal quality. This is only one of many studies supporting the general conclusion that a large fraction, if not a majority, of commercial properties deliver conditions that do not meet occupant expectations.
These levels of occupant dissatisfaction are not necessary. An equally large body of academic literature describes the factors contributing to comfort, satisfaction, and productivity. However, there is a disconnect between aspirations and outcomes. This is reflected in common gaps in management practices for property companies. Data from the GRESB Health & Well-being Module show that only half of participating companies reported asking occupants about their experience and a smaller fraction reported measuring indoor environmental conditions contributing to experience. The absence of any metrics for a significant fraction of companies indicates a fundamental challenge to the effective management of this foundational issue.
Fortunately, new tools and technology are making it easier to understand and manage real world occupant experience. Four specific strategies can turn technology into effective management:
#1 Qualified Leadership
The most important strategy precedes technology: qualified, empowered leadership. Effective management requires an individual with a mandate to understand and improve occupant experience across the organizations. This individual needs to have relevant training, technical skills, and resources to take action. It is important to recognize that the claim, “It is everyone’s job…” is rarely an adequate substitute.
#2 Situational Awareness
The next strategy is equally fundamental: situational awareness. This means having a realistic understanding of conditions across the organization. No portfolio is perfect, and situational awareness includes the ability to understand how conditions compare to peers and relevant benchmarks.
Key questions include: How do tenants and staff experience space today? Which groups have the best experience? Which groups are the least satisfied? Effectiveness situational awareness means having a quantitative grasp of when, where, and for whom conditions do or do not meet expectations. This information is essential to prioritize action and allocate resources, and anecdotal evidence or “gut feelings” are unlikely to be reliable guides for action.
#3 Occupant Perceptions
There are two complementary ways to build situational awareness. The first is to systematically sample occupant perceptions. For most organizations, this means asking tenants and staff about their experience. This seems rudimentary, but data from the Health & Well-being Module indicate that only about half of participants report asking about tenant or staff experience on an annual basis. Incrementally more sophisticated, data are more meaningful if they are collected as a statistically representative sample of populations occupying the organization’s property. Developing this kind of sample requires more effort than mass emails or lobby campaigns.
A representative sample requires establishing key populations based on factors known to alter experience, including age, gender, working hours, and more. Then the challenge is to generate a portional sample of each of these groups. This can be challenging, but it makes data far more relevant and actionable.
The combination of even a simple occupant survey with a statistically valid sample provides a reasonable starting point to understand perceived conditions across an asset or portfolio.
#4 Measured Conditions
The second strategy is to systematically measure physical conditions that shape experience. These typically include temperature, humidity, acoustics, air quality, and more. The distinction is that measured conditions are typically understood to be factors contributing to experience. At least conceptually, they can be observed by instruments. In practice, measured conditions may be “independent variables” in the sense that they are believed (or hoped) to determine perceived conditions.
Similar to perceived experience, it is important to have a systematic approach to sampling measurable indoor environmental conditions. This goes beyond sticking a sensor on a convenient wall or grabbing an air sample. The crux is to stratify conditions and use measurement to provide a representative assessment of conditions over space and time.
The Arc platform provides practical low- or no-cost tools to generate situation awareness, measure occupant perceptions, and manage information about indoor environmental conditions. Arc turns perceived and measured conditions into a single, synthetic Human Experience Score. This 0-100 metric compares performance for a space or building to green buildings around the world. Projects with a score of 100 have conditions rivaling the best in Arc global “Reference Set”. This turns raw data into a meaningful, relative metric. The Human Experience Score can be decomposed into two sub-scores, including perceived occupant satisfaction and measured indoor environmental conditions.
Perceived satisfaction is assessed via a simple survey instrument, which is typically delivered by email. Arc uses LEED guidelines to establish minimum sample sizes based on facility size. Arc provides a simple, easy way to administer occupant satisfaction surveys that adapts to occupant responses. Satisfied occupants are asked for information about factors which positively contribute to their experience. Dissatisfied occupants are given the opportunity to explain negative factors. The result is a measure of median satisfaction, variance, and information about positive and negative perceptions.
Perceived satisfaction is complemented by indoor measurements. Arc currently requires a minimum of annual measurements for CO2 and TVOC concentration. These measurements are scored based on the conditions observed in the space for 95% of occupied hours. It is important to stress that these are minimum requirements; however, they are also useful measures. High levels of CO2 or TVOC should be “red flags” for any facility manager, and they are unlikely to support superior human experience.
Arc demonstrates a simple, practical approach that provides situational awareness drawing on a combination of perceived satisfaction and measured conditions. By design, Arc’s approach lacks the sophistication and nuance of research-grade tools. However, it is also practical and easy to operationalize. To date, it has been used by more than 250,00 occupants in thousands of projects across dozens of countries around the world. The Arc framework will be refined and extended over time, particularly as Arc Integration Partners provide new measurement technology and analytics.
Stakeholder engagement is an important part of GRESB, and, in turn, the provision of superior human experience is a key part of stakeholder engagement. This is not a new insight, but it is clear that robust, systematic approaches to occupant experience are not ubiquitous among GRESB participants. Most companies have opportunities for improvement through skilled and empowered leadership, situational awareness, assessment of occupant experience, and measurement of indoor environmental conditions. Fortunately, new tools are emerging to make this work accessible and, in many cases, relatively inexpensive.
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