By Jonas Callmer, PhD
In the quest for a more productive workplace environment, establishing a ground truth is key to guiding the evolution of office spaces. Understanding what works is as important as knowing what doesn’t. Answering those questions effectively and efficiently is key.
In conversations with commercial real estate (CRE) and facilities management (FM) professionals over the last year, I’ve asked the question about what works every time and heard as many different answers as the number of people I’ve queried. Self-reported employee surveys, manual pen-and-paper observations, and room booking history are some of the more common ways for understanding how a particular corporate office is being used.
Surveys Of Workers. Employee surveys often take the form of online questionnaires where employees are asked to self-report various aspects, such as meeting room usage or the amount of days they spend in the office during a typical week. The goal is determining workplace behavior and employee needs. Although it’s relatively easy and cheap to construct and distribute a questionnaire, there’s a major hurdle to overcome: response bias. Simply put, humans are not very effective at reporting accurately on their own behaviors. And when it comes to CRE decisions, the last thing any company needs is unreliable information.
Manual Observation. Another recurring method of understanding office usage is manual observation. A senior consultant at an FM firm explained how his company used interns for office surveys. “We put an intern outside each and every meeting room,” he said. The interns, equipped with pen and clipboard, were to note every time someone went inside. At the end of the survey, the data was manually entered into an analytics database to get a grasp on actual utilization. The data was accurate, but was also so resource-intensive that data was typically based on a two-week period (or less) and extrapolated.
The same consultant said surveying larger assets was even more problematic. While manual observation might produce granular details, it doesn’t scale very well. Surprisingly, roughly 45% of facility managers rely on manual observation to track utilization, according to research by JLL.
Sensors. Sensors are another tool used in measuring workplace asset utilization. But while sensors can monitor when a person enters a room, there are a few drawbacks; hardware costs and installation work are two primary concerns.
In each of the facilities management assessment options above, the common thread is a trade-off between accuracy and efficiency. That is, the methods that produce the most accurate and reliable data are also the most resource consuming.
Indoor Positioning Systems. A relatively novel approach to understanding occupancy analytics is through indoor positioning system (IPS) technology for smartphones. By installing IPS in a building, the employees’ smartphones can calculate their position in the background. The data is accurate within a few feet and can determine how many employees are in a given room at any time. The location data is anonymized and sent to the analytics server.
Compared with traditional methods, like the ones previously mentioned, there are several benefits to this approach; a low cost of measuring, continuous data, and high resolution.
Low cost. In contrast to the manual observation, where several people are to observe and note the occupancy of rooms, using IPS consumes virtually no resources. Once the system is installed, it can immediately start collecting data. Compared with installing sensors in each room, the infrastructure needed for an IPS is minimal since it leverages much less hardware, and the most important piece is already likely is in use by every worker — smartphones.
Continuous data. When it comes to large office environments, no two weeks are the same. Assuming they are could mean basing large CRE decisions on, at best, unreliable information. Rather than measuring for a set time interval, such as a week or two, IPS provides continuous real-time occupancy data for every room. The margin cost of continuing the measurements for another week becomes very low.
High resolution. Whether companies are looking to identify areas of under- or over-utilization or understand their space needs, the granularity of occupancy data matters. Being able to tell if a room was used or not is a first step but can still be far from the truth. Understanding how many people typically use certain rooms provides a clearer picture of the actual use.
Since IPS leverages smartphones, it’s easy to derive the number of employees in a room. Knowing that the six-seat meeting rooms are predominantly used by one to two employees at a time is a key piece of information that can guide right-sizing and refurbishing plans.
Beyond collecting granular data on workplace occupancy, IPS can also deliver continuous aid and value to employees participating in office surveys. With a tap on their smartphone, location-based services help employees to find their way, find an available place to work, cancel resource reservations they don’t need, or find each other in a large office, all while maintaining the user’s privacy.
Workplace decisions must be based on a clear and reliable picture of the actual use. There are several different approaches to obtain such a picture. All too often, however, these approaches are either accurate and costly, and thus limited in scope, or affordable but unreliable. Leveraging the employee’s smartphones in combination with an indoor positioning system is a way to not only generate accurate occupancy data, but also do so in a non-intrusive and perpetual way.
As the vice president of product and co-founder of Senion, Callmer takes ideas to user-friendly applications designed to simplify lives. He is passionate about building advanced products that seem simple, bordering the invisible. Senion is a global provider of location-responsive solutions, augmenting the mobile experience of people’s everyday life.