The future of sensors in the workplace

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Raj Krishnamurthy, CEO & Founder, Workplace Fabric

For years, companies provided one desk per person and decided on the amount of space required based on the number of employees. It was simple. 100 people required 100 desks. But as real estate has become more expensive and technology has enabled people to break free from the constraints of working only at a desk, companies have started to sweat their real estate assets and introduce agile working, hot desking, home working and desk sharing.

At the time, the only way to monitor desk utilisation levels was to have a person with a clipboard doing spot checks at different times of the day. But just as technology has created solutions to a variety of workplace challenges, workplace sensors were developed to provide real-time data on how the space was being used.

Now a variety of different products on the market monitor which desks, breakout areas and other spaces are being used. Over a period of time, this presents a valuable picture to the business of how much space is required.

For the real estate team, there is a valuable opportunity to re-evaluate space usage and thus identify opportunities to maximise on costly floor space. A report from Cushman and Wakefield revealed that London and Hong Kong remain the world’s most expensive cities, with the cost of a single workstation in London being $22,665 a year and $27,432 in Hong Kong. The same report also reveals that, as output is increasingly the result of collaboration, workplaces must drastically increase their ratio of collaborative spaces to individual desk spaces. Getting the mix right could mean delivering not only the best use of available space, but dramatic impact on team productivity by finding the right balance of focus, collaboration, quiet and touchdown spaces.

A mechanism to deterministically measure the impact of any such investment will of course please the C-suite, who will seek a boost to their organisation’s bottom line while delivering improved people satisfaction. Using real-time data provided by sensors to maximise performance of the workplace and, at the same time, impact the behaviour and experience of employees, businesses can deliver a multi-faceted benefit to their performance.

For the facilities management team, sensors reveal which spaces are the most popular and which are rarely used – and give them the impetus to examine why. It could be that some areas are too hot or too cold because they’re positioned in sunlight or near an air-conditioning unit. There might be an issue with noise or poor air quality. A step further, sensors can help guide the daily work patterns of the facilities management team. For example, cleaning routines may be tailored around the occupancy levels of certain spaces, or just in time for busy catering turnarounds so that a superior customer experience can be delivered.

Initially used simply to monitor whether or not staff were sat at their desks, the technology behind workplace sensors has today evolved to include a range of additional benefits. Freespace, the sensor solution from Workplace Fabric, for example, can monitor light, temperature, humidity, noise and carbon dioxide levels within a workspace, in addition to whether a desk is occupied. No longer serving one purpose, sensors have the capability to benefit multiple stakeholders in a business, from HR and IT to facilities management and real estate. And, as such, sensors are promising to play a key role in the workplace of the future.

Instead of simply shifting from monitoring occupancy to productivity and environment, the thinking is now centred on how people’s day-to-day working experience can be significantly improved through workplace sensors. One organisation, Sage Publishing, asked their staff whether their workplace inspired them to ‘give their best work’, and less than a third agreed. After installing Freespace, this number more than doubled to 70%. Moreover, the percentage of employees who said they look forward to coming to work increased from 58% to 80%. Bearing in mind that nothing about their physical environment had changed – no new furniture, floor or wall coverings – these figures are staggering.

The Journey to Get There

For organisations considering workplace optimisation as a programme, what are the key steps in the journey to the final goal?

A number of elements need to be taken into consideration. For a start, companies need to factor in the impending GDPR regulation – under which the management of personal data will be put under intense scrutiny and require compliance to strict new guidelines. This is making corporates rethink the purpose of collecting personal data. How important is it to track the identity of the individual in order to provide them a service? In most cases, it is not necessary to know who the person is, to be told what space is available.

Adobe, the Californian software provider, adopted workplace occupancy sensors in its new London office following in-depth consultations with HR, legal and security experts, as well as employee committees. For Mark Bell, Regional Workplace Operations Manager EMEA at Adobe, ‘The overwhelming factor for us is that it’s completely anonymous.’

Compliance aside, most of the companies considering deploying sensors (quite rightly) face the challenge from staff that this is too ‘Big Brother’. Even after convincing arguments that an individual’s identity is not captured by sensors, there is still a sense of distrust. A new approach may be considered to allay these concerns. Freespace’s signage allows live availability data to be projected on screens, showing the familiar floorplan of the building – and the typical anxiety that comes with trying to find the right space, at the right time, is eradicated completely. This also naturally addresses the ‘purpose’ question – showing staff that a new way of working has arrived where they don’t need to ‘book’ in order to use. Presented attractively, the signage platform can help project a modern, digital corporate brand for the business.

Workplace Fabric "Freespace" technology at Adobe Offices in the White Collar Building. 25 October 2017
Workplace Fabric “Freespace” technology at Adobe Offices in the White Collar Building. 25 October 2017

The Future is Now

A study conducted by Deloitte estimates that 1.3 billion sensors will be deployed in real estate by 2020, and JLL’s 2017 Global Commercial Real Estate Trends Report forecasts that 30% of corporate portfolios will soon be flexible workspaces.

This isn’t just theory anymore; the future of workplace sensors is here.

Even today, we’re seeing typically risk-averse sectors such as finance, legal and public sector embracing non-allocated seating and sensors. As the popularity of activity-based working increases, and corporate stakeholders continue to reap the benefits, we can only see sensors becoming a staple feature of the future workplace.