As hybrid work offices shrink, the use of motion sensors may grow

HR managers who want to know how hybrid work is changing the use of the office can get help from motion sensors, which can answer questions that other systems cannot answer.

Calendars as well as desk and office reservation systems can determine when hybrid work employees will be in the office, but not whether those employees will work at a desk or in the cafeteria, a Zoom room or other corner of the office. Motion sensors can add a layer of intelligence and help HR managers discover whether conference room and desk reservations are reaching actual usage.

Motion sensors are small and unobtrusive. They can be placed under a desk to see if it is being used or in a meeting room to count the number of people using it at any given time. Sensor data can provide insight into how employees are using office space, which can be linked up to reservation systems. If a desk is reserved and no one is sitting on it, the reservation may be canceled automatically.

Sensors can also make the underlying thesis of hybrid work — flexibility — more flexible, said Jacques Guigui, director of technology and innovation at the Paris location of CBRE, a global commercial real estate services firm.

“The first challenge now is to make employees want to come back to the office,” Guigui said.

Guigui, who focuses on how technology can improve the working environment, believes that desk reservation systems are too intrusive. A better approach is to “install the sensors, collect the data and wait,” he said.

Workers using a desk reservation system tend to reserve the same seat every time, which hurts the concept of flexibility, Guigui said. “In most cases, working at home — on average, two days a week — avoids the problem of over-occupation,” he said.

If HR managers want a reservation system, Guigui recommends that they teach employees to reserve a seat in an office zone without choosing a specific seat. Such a system would “maintain the flex spirit of the workplace approach,” he said.

What are the sensors monitoring?

A sensor can provide broad recognition of a moving object, whether it’s a person or an animal, said Fred Katz, an electrical engineering consultant in Hauppauge, N.Y., who has patents on sensor technology — including one which addresses the problem of distinguishing between a person and a domestic animal. A typical motion sensor provides the equivalent of 32 pixels of information, and “if you have a TV with 32 pixels of information, you’ll have a very rough picture,” he said.

There are some systems that can track people in an office, such as cameras and RFID devices linked to employee badges, but they can also raise privacy issues, experts say. There are various motion sensors that can detect heat, bounce microwaves off objects and use infrared lasers.

Guigui uses a system developed by Microshare Inc., a Philadelphia-based company with tools for monitoring office environments and occupancy, among other products. The data Guigui collects is anonymous, and most sensors cannot collect information about employees.

Scheduling software programs alone “don’t marry the schedule with reality,” says Ron Rock, CEO and co-founder of Microshare. Companies have various shared amenity spaces, for example, and the question is, “What is being used, and exactly how is it being used?”

Sensors are both invaluable and completely worthless.

John VivadelliExecutive vice president of workplace solutions, Tango

Network logins and keycard swipes are another way to know when employees are in the office. For many employers, that kind of digital data will be enough, said John Vivadelli, executive vice president of workplace solutions at Tango, an integrated workplace management company based in Dallas.

“Sensors are both very valuable and completely worthless,” says Vivadelli, which means sensors can do little if an organization doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Before spending money on sensor deployments, companies need to know their organizational strategies, real estate and workplace goals, the metrics to measure, and the type of data they need, and “Then you choose the technology,” he said.

But Vivadelli can see a strong case for using the motion sensor for targeted needs, such as conference room management. Many rooms remain unoccupied even though reserved or used even though listed as open in a reservation system. Sensors can detect the presence of people and feed that data into an occupancy management system, he said.

Cost can be an issue

One problem with using sensors can be the cost of deployment, said Craig Gillespie, vice president of the occupant division at MRI Software in Solon, Ohio.

Gillespie says customers interested in high-quality sensors will typically use a subscription model, and covering an office floor can cost $5,000 or $10,000. The biggest obstacle is cost, he said.

He expects that as prices drop, more companies will adopt the sensor technology. The trend is already moving in that direction. Gillespie said that despite the costs, the sensor technology “is becoming more popular, not less.”

Kevin Nanney, vice president and general manager of workplace service delivery at ServiceNow, said that employees are now coming to offices for specific reasons, such as collaboration and meetings. He says the usage data collected by the sensors helps companies understand if they’re using space correctly — both in renovating and maintaining it, as well as renting the right amount of space.

The payback “comes from the cost savings of having that usage data and what you’re doing with the real estate,” Nanney said.

Commercial buildings are getting more IoT and sensor technology in building smart buildings that maximize environmental efficiency. Last year, NTT Research Inc. opened of a “hybrid-remote smart workspace” in Sunnyvale, Calif. The 35,000-square-foot facility includes casual and collaborative workspaces and circulation routes designed to encourage interactions.

Hybrid work will prompt employers to consider how much space they need and how to manage occupancy, said Ichiro Fukuda, CEO of network innovations at NTT Ltd. He believes these tools will be mandatory for the “post-pandemic designed hybrid workplace.”

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He has worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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