Given the amount of wasted space to be found in the average corporate office (HBR says office usage peaks at 42%), it’s not surprising that so many organizations are looking to make better use of space to reduce property expenses. However, optimizing the workplace is no longer only about cutting costs: it’s increasingly about improving employee experience. Today’s workplace must act as an enabler that supports the workforce in producing their best work and creating innovative solutions.

In many parts of the world, the question in 2017 is not whether to implement modern workplace design, but how to get it right. CRE teams are challenged with providing work environments that meet the needs of a diverse worker population. How can you get the information you need to optimize space utilization AND provide the right mix of space types for each team? Many progressive companies are turning to sensor data to provide that intelligence and drive effective workplace transformation decisions.

What information can sensor data provide for optimizing space and improving employee experience?

Making the best use of space requires answering three key questions:

  • How much space do we have?
  • How well do we use it?
  • How much space is being used by each group or business unit at any particular time?

According to Rob Wright, Managing Director of sensor technology provider INOVU, “I’ve been involved with workplace strategy for 30 years, and the same questions are still being asked by real estate teams. Today, sensor data can provide the answers at a very granular level.”

For decades, companies have tried to gather this information manually. Chances are, you’re familiar with the shortcomings of these methods.

Sensors do it better; in fact, sensor data provides one of the most efficient intelligence sources for driving workplace transformation strategy. Here’s why:

Continuous data collection: Sensor data shows trends over time that are missed with short-term manual data collection efforts. This long-term data is essential for capacity planning in an agile work environment.

Ironclad evidence: Sensor data proves attendance & space usage in a way that can’t be refuted easily by your business units. Even if you’ve got badge data to show who is in the building, sensors can prove that they are not at their desks all day, which is important to know for agile space planning.

Real time data availability: Sensor data can be collected and available in seconds to power wayfinding technology (more on that to come).

Sensor technology for occupancy & utilization management

There are three types of sensors commonly used for collecting space utilization data in the workplace:

Motion (room) sensors use passive infrared technology (PIR) to detect movements within their field of view. Typically wall or ceiling-mounted, these sensors can detect usage of a room with accuracy as high as 90 to 95%. However when people sit still for long periods in a meeting the accuracy can be reduced, and these sensors can’t detect how many people are using the space.

Desk or occupancy sensors can detect the presence of a person in a specific spot, such as sitting at a desk. For the best accuracy, a PIR sensor on its own is not sufficient, as people may sit still for long periods resulting in false readings over time.

High volume count sensors are typically installed above the doors in large rooms or auditoriums and count the people entering and exiting the space (attendance). This sensor data can provide intelligence about usage vs. capacity levels for large meeting rooms. They can also count people using spaces as a tool for promoting modern workplace features (more on that to come). These sensors can be up to 98% accurate.

“Desk sensors are useful for tracking what we call ‘away status,’ when a particular seat is empty,” said Wright. “In an agile environment, this sensor data provides good insight into behavior for the workplace strategist for understanding how mobile workers are moving around the office.”

Sensor technology is advancing rapidly: according to Wright, INOVU is developing a new and innovative technology for detecting the presence of a person in a seat or in an enclosed space. As the technology matures, devices are offering better accuracy, lower maintenance and easier deployment (in many cases, FM and IT staff can install the devices themselves).

Using sensor data in the modern workplace

Here are some specific applications for using sensor data to improve both space optimization and employee experience in the workplace.

Meeting room utilization and availability

This is an all-too-common scenario in traditional corporate offices: people can’t find an available conference room through the booking system, but wandering around the office reveals that many large rooms are being used by groups of only 2 or 3 people. Or worse, rooms are booked but nobody is using them at all.

This is where sensor data is extremely useful. Room sensors can tell you in real time if a room is booked but not actually occupied. And desk sensors in every seat can reveal the right mix of conference room sizes to maximize utilization. For example, instead of 3 rooms designed for 10, you can better meet employee needs by breaking up two of those rooms into smaller rooms designed for 6. You can also detect rooms that are under-utilized and find out why. The room might be uncomfortably hot, or missing essential technology that employees need for collaborating.

Real-time workpoint availability

In an agile workplace, employees need an easy and reliable way to find a space to work. The last thing they want to do is reserve a seat with an inaccurate desk booking system, then walk across the building to find the seat occupied. Or, work somewhere they don’t want to be when their space of choice is actually available. Real time, accurate sensor data from desk-level sensors is essential for powering wayfinding tools that improve employee experience with shared seating. Employees can view a heatmap on a kiosk or mobile app showing seats currently available.

Usage of wellness features such as staircases

INOVU has worked with innovative companies using sensor data to promote wellness initiatives such as encouraging use of staircases. “We have used high level people counters on the stairs to track how many were traveling between different floors, recording use by day of week, weekly average, and current day. Then we displayed those stats by the staircases and in reception to motivate people to use the stairs instead of the lifts. ‘Let’s beat our Tuesday record!’ Or invite a competition between workers on different floors. It’s a great way to promote a wellness program.”

Reduce maintenance expenses

The cost of space itself is not the only expense that you can reduce using sensor data. There’s also the cost of maintenance. When sensor data tells you a space has not been used, then you can reduce the cleaning schedule. Likewise, employee experience improves when you clean heavily used areas more frequently. You can even better control catering costs when you can see exactly how many people are in a meeting room.

Improve indoor air quality

One idea you might not have considered is going beyond occupancy sensor data to improve employee experience using sensors that detect problems with indoor air quality. When an open-plan office space gets crowded with people, carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air can rise to dangerous levels that make people feel tired and sluggish, potentially impeding work output and causing health complaints.

“With today’s sealed buildings and green initiatives, FM staff may turn ventilation system off at night to save energy,” said Wright. “In one pilot, we found CO2 levels climbing dramatically (up to 4x recommended limits) in a very short period as people came into the office, even with only 50% occupancy. This was a real eye opener for us, because while people are concerned about air quality outside, it’s turning out to be much worse in office spaces. That’s bad for people and bad for productivity.”

Recent research led by a Harvard environmental health expert reported a 15% decline in performance with moderate CO2 levels, and a 50% decline at CO2 levels of 1,400 ppm. In Wright’s example, sensors were detecting levels in excess of 2,000 ppm.

The sensor data provided by CO2 sensors can help FM staff to monitor the issue and adjust the HVAC to keep air quality safe in the building.

Sensor data analytics for the modern workplace

When you’re collecting sensor data from multiple sources and tracking it across many floors and buildings, how do you easily bring all that intelligence together and make it useful? That’s where Serraview’s modern workplace management system comes into play, combining the power of sensor data with:

  • Heatmaps, dashboards & analytics to visualize intelligence at any level of granularity
  • Space planning tools designed to manage agile workspaces and neighborhoods
  • Scenario planning to facilitate workplace transformation strategy
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Jonathan writes about asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions in his role as a digital content creator at Eptura. He covers trends across industries, including fleet, manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality, with a focus on delivering thought leadership with actionable insights. Earlier in his career, he wrote textbooks, edited NPC dialogue for video games, and taught English as a foreign language. He hold a master's degree in journalism.