The rise in the use of workplace sensors caused controversy in January, when staff at the Telegraph found them attached to their desks without warning. The outcry led to their rapid removal. But are sensors a sinister Big Brother development or a crucial tool in the journey to flexibility?
Employees have been known to flee in fear, say workplace consultants, when they see monitors coming with their clipboards to track desk use. Now, sensors are replacing or complementing traditional manual monitoring. Andrew Howells, head of workplace consultancy at sensor provider Condeco, says sensors offer a cheaper, richer data set to analyse capacity, yielding 14,000 pieces of information a day.
Companies typically use about 42% of their space, peaking at 62%. “It leaves a lot of real estate lying empty from one day to the next,” says Howells, whose clients include GE, Prudential and Barclays. “We have cases of companies looking for additional building space and then realising they didn’t need it and actually consolidating. Some people make multi-million pound mistakes because they think that’s what they need.”
He believes understanding office underuse also helps push businesses and individuals to work more flexibly. For example, companies may previously have sacrificed valuable breakout space for desks. “If they did a survey would quickly realise they have 100 desks completely empty every day.” They can also trial new furniture and working solutions and monitor their success before undertaking expensive implementation programmes.
Sensors have their limitations
But as the workplace changes, fixed sensors may struggle to keep up. Colin Stuart, founder and managing director of workplace consultancy Baker Stuart, points out that measuring an agile workspace is different. “Before you implement agile working a workspace is 95% desks and meeting rooms. If you go into an activity-based environment where you have stand up meetings, breakout spaces and scrums, sensors are very limited.”
He sees sensors as only one part of the workplace change picture. If a worker goes to chat to a colleague at their desk this isn’t picked up as different level of occupation. Are they talking there because there is no-where else to go, or because they want to look at a screen together? Are they disturbing colleagues around them? If someone leaves their desk are they ‘beach towelling’ it (leaving a jacket on the chair so it can’t be used by someone else)?
“When you implement agile working these sort of behaviours need to be understood,” he says. “A sensor doesn’t measure that your bag and laptop are still there.” Likewise they may not be able to sense overcrowding in meeting rooms. He feels sensors should be accompanied by manual observation and his company is working on monitoring that identifies key areas of social interaction and even the individuals who facilitate that.
However, sensor providers are also working on new technologies to measure the agile environment and are developing solutions to help, such as thermal camera technology that can detect the number of people in a particular space. Suppliers such as Condeco are trialling technology that can pick up mobile phone signals and see how many people are using a particular area and which services (coffee shops, toilets, corridors and lifts) are used heavily.
“These things are coming together to provide an organisation with a complete view of how its space is used from one day to the next,” says Howells.
Sensors aren’t just for short-term change projects either. Increasingly businesses are using them for long-term tracking and management of space, not something they could do with manual monitoring.
Todd Budgen, director of UK real estate for insurer Aon, says the firm has moved from a very traditional building and way of working to a new headquarters and agile culture. At the same time, it installed a permanent sensor solution in its new building to help monitor change. As well as desks “we also measure our alternative workplaces, meeting rooms and cafes. We get a good understanding of what’s working and what isn’t,” he says.
As a result of the sensor information, the company is swapping out some of the less popular furniture solutions and areas in favour of the highly-used ones.
The rise of sensors has been rapid and was largely uncontroversial until the Telegraph incident, when staff reacted badly to finding sensors under their desks unexpectedly – something the company says was part of an ‘environmental sustainability data trial’.
Data management company Cad-Capture, which provided the Telegraph OccupEye desk sensors, has been doing so uneventfully since 2010. Public sector organisations were among the early adopters – forced to maximise the potential of their space and avoid staff reductions amid government cost cutting. However, since 2015 senior account manager Neil Steele says there has been an explosion in popularity.
The problem at the Telegraph was communication, he explains. Information that should have been sent to staff in advance did not go out. “There is nothing to fear from workspace utilization sensors, but I understand why the staff reacted as they did,” he says. “They weren’t informed in advance.”
Ironically, he tells Flexible Boss, the company was attracted to its Passive Infrared (PIR) system because of the anonymity offered. The system reacts to heat and movement, which he feels is far less intrusive than computer or mobile phone tracking.
“We believe this is the least intrusive device you could have,” he says. The sensors can be deployed at desks or in meeting rooms and use a combination of movement and heat to record how spaces are used. They are designed to monitor the performance of workspaces, not individuals. “We don’t see there is any link between productivity and time at the desk,” adds Steele. “More people are working on the move or in coffee shops, getting a lot of things done out of the office environment.”
Stuart adds that such a negative reaction is an indication of corporate culture. “The fact that the staff are fearful of being monitored means there is that culture of presenteeism,” he says. “We have no interest in who is there or not there. We are looking at patterns.”
Once the forensic detail of desk use is logged, companies can link this to building management and space availability – allowing team members to see where desks and meeting rooms are available and ending the abuse of meeting room booking systems. Howell says even where meeting rooms are booked at 80-90%, they lie empty 35-40% of the time.
Steele points to the University of Birkbeck, which has sensors on 400 desks in the university library, linked to an app that shows students live desk availability. Those students are the office workers of the future. Likewise, Cad-Capture client global publisher RELX Group has screens at the entry to its City office with colour-coded floorplans showing which desks are free.
Yet, while workplace experts were left bewildered by the strength of reaction, the Telegraph example illustrates the potential problems with using data to improve workspaces. Failure to communicate aims and intentions, and to illustrate the benefits to staff can result in them rejecting the technology.
Link to agile working
Experts across the sector agree that instead of sensors being a one-way benefit, workers need to be at the heart of the improvements they can offer.
“The whole thing has to be about ‘how can people be effective?’” says Trevor Alldridge, head of UK Workplace Consultancy at property firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) “It may not be coming to the building that day – apps can help people make the right choice.”
He sees sensors as part of the “digital disruption affecting real estate”, one aspect of a broader change impacting the way real estate is used and managed by corporate occupiers. In this change, space utilization and measurement are lower-value benefits than people, brand and culture.
“We predict that user experience will become vital,” says Alldridge. “For organisations to attract and retain the very best people they will have to build the right type of destination that people want to go to and organise them so people perform at their best. Sensors have a role to play in all this because the ultimate objective of the data is to tell organisations what experiences their people are enjoying each day.”
He doesn’t believe it will be long before apps can identify what you are working on and recommend the best place to do that, combining that knowledge with the patterns of team members so workers can connect where and when they need. Office management moving into the realm of hospitality.
JLL is working on apps and gaming solutions that can link staff experience to the use of sensors – for example, if an individual is looking for a quieter space, a cooler temperature or a private room, an app can direct them to available options. “We will move away from sensors being thought of as Big Brother to a welcome thing that gives more choice,” says Alldridge.
Steele says Cad-Capture is also working on options to use sensors to monitor temperature, CO2 and light. Seat sensors are becoming more useful as companies move away from desk-based environments and want to track the popularity and use of soft seating or break out areas. Meanwhile, Condeco is embedding i-beacon technology to tie sensors to users’ phones and allow them to find a free meeting room in real time. “These things are all possible and being developed,” says Howells.
Deloitte on the Edge
JLL corporate research director for EMEA and the UK Tom Carroll believes smart buildings will transform the way real estate works in the next five years, pointing to Deloitte’s Netherlands building ‘The Edge’ as an example (pictured, above and bottom). “It’s beginning to happen. Once we get that convergence between building management systems and the data and aligning the user experience perceptions, that’s when we believe there will be a real estate step change,” he says.
Wilma Bontes, spokeswoman for Deloitte in the Netherlands, says sophisticated design, technology innovations and activity-based workspaces create a comfortable living environment which increases employee satisfaction at the Edge. Employees can select their preferred light strength and temperature. An app is used for online room reservations and wireless screen connections.
“This building and its technologies enable the employee to perform to his best. Things work, are efficient and even fun to handle,” she says. “More and more organizations are discovering the necessity of creating an inspiring and tech-based work environment in order not to lose the recruitment battle for the new generation.”
While office vacancies are at an all-time high, the Edge, a multitenant building, has been entirely rented out in a couple of months. Deloitte’s flexible and mobile workforce approach means the workspace per employee ratio is low (0.4). It may be expensive to build, but Deloitte points to positive impact on employee satisfaction and says there is global interest in the building.
Issues of perception
When it comes to issues of perception the user experience factor will be key. Companies need to put people first and worry about the intricacies of optimising the environment second, says Carroll. “It is absolutely a concern that individuals will have and it will need to be managed by organisations, but we are seeing a change in the way that data and data collection is becoming a standard part of everyday life.”
He points to the use of Fitbits, Apple watches and other wearable devices as evidence of our growing comfort with technology. “These concerns are likely to ease as people see the enormous benefits to this data optimising their environment.”
Yet Stuart predicts stormy times ahead if people are already concerned about the use of sensors. “What’s coming is the Internet of Things where we will being able to track you around a building by your phone or laptop – there is the potential for this to be very Big Brother,” he says. “There is an ethical dilemma for workplace consultants. Is it right to be monitoring people to that level?”
The need to maximise space efficiency and increase employee productivity means the march of sensors will continue. They have the ability to transform working life if employers keep people at the centre of their thinking. But there are limits. As Graham Bird, workplace director at Baker Stuart, points out: “A sensor can record if a person is there but not what they are doing. It’s very difficult to measure productivity in the office environment.”
Photos of the Edge: Ronald Tilleman
Other images: Condeco, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dongoldberg/