Tracking Occupancy For Improved Space Planning

Sensor technology is on the rise for use in workplace design and evaluation processes.

By Simon Iatrou
From the October 2018 Issue

The use of workplace sensors is growing at a rapid rate. Ranging from devices that measure occupancy, temperature, noise, and air quality to monitors that capture conditions related to human physiology, sensor technology is giving organizations a more complete picture of the working environments and people inside them. Deloitte estimates that sensors in real estate will grow at an annual rate of 78% from 2015 to 2020, with a total of 1.3 billion sensors deployed globally in two years’ time.

sensor technologyArguably, the most popular version of this technology is the occupancy sensor. By placing these sensors under office desks or other working areas, organizations can measure utilization levels and make evidence-based decisions about the design and function of their workplaces. Andrew Mawson, the founder of workplace change consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates, claims that the space utilization data produced by occupancy sensors enables organizations to investigate why certain areas of a facility, such as social spaces, may be underused. Combining occupancy data in conjunction with temperature, noise, and air quality information can even help facility managers to better understand and manage the experience users have in order to curate workplaces that boost cognitive performance.

Yet it is not always so straightforward. In 2015, staff at British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reacted angrily to the installation of heat and motion occupancy sensors underneath their desk. The National Union of Journalists accused the media company of carrying out “Big Brother-style surveillance in the newsroom.” Senior management removed the devices swiftly and, in a company-wide e-mail, stated that it would look into “alternative ways to gather environmental sustainability data.”

Mawson believes installing sensors secretly is generally a bad idea: “It is far better to be open and to even provide occupancy or workplace performance data back to users to guide their choice of the space.” Sharing the data with occupiers is particularly effective in organizations that encourage their people use a variety of different spaces within the workplace. According to Mawson, the cost justification of these sensors is often in support of a move to an agile working environment or an office redesign—but the future will see corporate real estate leaders build their business case for sensors around the impact of the workplace experience on human performance.

This theory is one that international property and infrastructure firm Lendlease has taken to heart—quite literally. The firm’s well-being consulting service offers a voluntary program called “Manage Your Energy Renewal” that uses Firstbeat Bodyguard, a biofeedback device developed in elite sports to measure levels of stress and recovery over a 48-hour period. Duncan Young, head of health and well-being for property there, explains: “Our global program helps employees understand when they are using energy and when they are renewing energy, as in sports, the absence of recovery is attracting attention.”

“We used heart rate monitors to help individuals measure their heart rate variability—the beat to beat distance of your heart,” Young adds. “During the day, moment to moment, your heart rate variability changes. When you have high heart rate variability you are actually in recovery, and when you have low heart rate variability you are using energy.”

Science has proven that the power of recovery impacts physiological and psychological factors, including memory, focus, energy, and mobility. Through its program, Lendlease uses the deidentified, amalgamated data to give participants insight into their performance. A personalized “lifestyle report” is generated, while data is aggregated into groups alongside workshops and coaching sessions. Young says businesses will start looking at employees in the context of “corporate athletes.” He explains: “The goal is to help people at work with the same technology used in elite sports to understand and optimize their recovery so that they can perform at their best, not only at work but in life too.”

Leesman, a global workplace experience benchmarking firm, has also participated in the program. Leesman’s research offers insight into which factors most significantly encourage workplace productivity and enhance employee experience. The freely available data reveals the differences that drive high performance workplaces, acting as an important data pool for the facility management and real estate industries.

Commenting on his organization’s work with Young and the heartbeat monitors, Leesman CEO, Tim Oldman, says: “We’re all about evidence—and participating in this evidence-based approach to health has certainly helped widen our thinking around employee wellness. Understanding how each team member deals differently with stress in our increasingly busy lives was hugely beneficial. And it showed us how small positive steps made over time can have a big impact on health.”

Sensor technology is at its most effective when it empowers people. Facility managers considering the technology can allay privacy concerns by being transparent about objectives and giving employees a stake in the findings. It should be a bottom-up process that doesn’t impose behaviors, but instead equips people with a better understanding of their own performance and working environments.

sensor technologyIatrou writes about facilities management and the workplace. He is a former editor of and Facilities Management Journal (UK).

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