Can robots prevent the return of the cubicle?

By Selina Short

EY Oceania Market Segment Leader, Built Environment & Resources

Experienced in intelligent buildings and smart cities. Champion of innovation and the strategic importance of cities.

5 minute read 17 Jul 2020

Automation can play a key role in improving employee health in buildings and support the return to work.

Automation technology just got a job in real estate, says Dr. Andrea Chegut from MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab.

An online poll, conducted by EY of global real estate players in June found that two-thirds of real estate companies are looking toward automation and technology to solve their return-to-work challenges today and support the future of work in a post-pandemic world. The findings reveal 21% of respondents have already increased their investment in automation and technology.

A massive 41% are “considering their options.” Just 10% are making no change to their investment. But alarmingly, 29% are still uncertain.

EY automation poll


of respondents are increasing their investment in automation and technology to tackle COVID-19 pandemic.

Healthy buildings in the headlights

These were just a few of the fascinating outtakes from a recent webinar and panel discussion, hosted by EY and Dr. Andrea Chegut, Co-founder and Director of the Real Estate Innovation Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

We got together to ask a simple question: how do we create healthy offices?

This is a question that has already been unpicked in hundreds of articles and flooded our social media feeds with “expert” opinions. Are we saying goodbye to the skyscraper? Or will we need to expand our real estate footprint in the era of social distancing? The speculation has swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, but often missing the nuances that sit somewhere in between.

So, turning to some of the smartest minds in the office space, we took a step back to get the basics right. If health and safety are the top priorities as we return to work, what does a healthy building look like? And what role does technology — especially automation technology — play in creating buildings that protect and enhance human health?

Productivity powerhouses


of savings are possible from improved indoor environments, finds MIT.

Healthy buildings have been on the real estate radar for some time as a productivity booster. The cost of poor air quality on performance is well established. For example, a seminar report from the National Institutes of Health found that poor air quality can erode  productivity by as much as 9%. On the upside, MIT estimates that a savings of up to US$150b is possible from improved indoor environments alone.

MIT’s Dr. Chegut told our webinar audience how past pandemics have shaped the built environment, pointing to expansion of public parks, development of atriums and regulation around sanitation as examples. Basic technologies to enhance ventilation and hygiene have been around for more than a century, she said.

Going forward, we will design and curate spaces with a different set of intentions.
Dr. Andrea Chegut
Co-founder and Director of MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the way we think about our health and safety in public spaces.

This means we must begin to “design and curate spaces with a different set of intentions,” Dr. Chegut argued.

Density ratios and touchless technology; advanced air quality measures; and “pre-clean rooms,” offsite construction and robotic assistants, as well as a “resurgence in self-sustaining and local neighborhoods” are ahead and will have long-lasting impacts on the workplace.

Good structures, great technology

A healthy building requires a host of interventions, but at its heart is good design, according to JPMorgan Chase’s Global Head of Property Management Mike Norton. No single intervention can eliminate COVID-19, Norton observed during our panel discussion, so office design requires a “layering of defenses.”

JPMorgan Chase’s newest building in New York, designed along biophilic principles, features soaring ceilings, flooding floors with natural light; high fresh air rates and advanced air filtration, together with a selection of natural materials. These features were designed to prioritize human health and have been “reinforced” during the pandemic, Norton said.

Getting the building’s structure right is important. But JPMorgan Chase is also “thinking a lot about intelligent buildings” and how people can interact with them “in a touchless way,” said JPMorgan’s Managing Director Erik Umlauf.

Healthy buildings on the horizon


of firms are actively deploying healthy buildings technology in their assets.

While 25% of real estate firms have joined JPMorgan Chase on the journey toward intelligent buildings and are actively deploying healthy buildings technology in their assets, more than a quarter (25%) of our poll respondents aren’t even considering healthy buildings.

A further 9% have made the tough (and somewhat baffling) call not to invest at all. This could be due to capital constraints in the current environment and underscore the importance of investing in the good times.

When we break down the healthy building interventions being used to tackle COVID-19, the insights are illuminating.

Healthy building intervention Percentage

Educate building occupants to encourage personal hygiene and sanitation


Improve air quality with ventilated, humidified or filtered air


Employ touchless technologies for elevators, doors and shared community areas


Optimize the building’s experience for users


Use building management tools to improve building access and minimize health risks


None of the above


It may not be a surprise that the response with the least cost — educating building occupants on hygiene and sanitation — is being adopted by 34% of real estate firms. But what is surprising is that 34% of real estate companies are not responding to COVID-19 with any additional healthy building interventions.

Robots on the real estate payroll

Dr. Chegut had a clear message for our webinar audience: “Automation technology just got a job in real estate.”

She pointed to the “plethora” of automation tools that could enhance the health and well-being of the workplace:

Office-sponsored wearable tracking devices

When coupled with algorithms, wearable tracking devices can track daily symptoms and overall body temperatures, respiratory rate and heart rate to better understand early warning signs of infection.


Robots can detect, sanitize, clean and conduct deliveries, and Dr. Chegut said MIT had recorded a 13% increase in the use of robotics for these purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning

AI can help us understand how people move through offices to create more efficient layouts, she added. For example, Spatio Metrics uses AI to quantify the value of design to help support smarter facility planning decisions.

Digital twins

Digital twins can show us in real time how users can securely and meaningfully interact with each other and, in doing so, create secure, scalable and adaptable digital ecosystems.

Elizabeth Brink, Principal of the global design firm Gensler, joined the conversation. She agreed that it was time to take a much more serious look at how technology can better support health and well-being.

“The technology has always been there, but the use case has changed and, therefore, people are taking a really different and deep look,” she said.

Brink said she expected “a lot of experimentation” ahead, and a trend toward more “fluidity, flexibility and agility” in workspaces.

Automation plays an important part in our future, but this is “built of good principles and thoughtfulness to begin with,” Brink said. This means listening to people and understanding what they need.

The real estate sector has been talking about healthy buildings for decades. But COVID-19 has raised the stakes. Today’s office must have all the essentials — fresh air, clean surfaces, and safe and healthy spaces — together with an atmosphere that inspires, engages, encourages interaction. It is automation technology and AI, together with data, that will amplify infection control today and build resilient working beyond.

Watch the third webcast in EY’s webinar series: Automation, healthy buildings and the future of work.


If health and safety are the top priorities as we return to work, creating a healthy environment for your employees is critical. Technology — especially automation technology — can play a key role in creating buildings that protect and enhance human health.

About this article

By Selina Short

EY Oceania Market Segment Leader, Built Environment & Resources

Experienced in intelligent buildings and smart cities. Champion of innovation and the strategic importance of cities.