Workplaces: sensor technology
Knowledge is power
7 July 2016
Paul Statham outlines the potential of sensor technology to create dynamic workplaces
Recent years have seen the so-called ‘internet of things’ (IoT) – the network of objects able to collect and exchange data – gain more and more prominence. This IoT still promises some very exciting developments, however.
There remain many untapped possibilities for connecting devices and even ‘dumb’ objects; the phenomenon is only just beginning. We are on the road to a point at which everything will have a chip and be connected. From then on, the technology will settle in as we realise where IoT connection is most transformative.
Sensor technology, part of the IoT revolution, is on a similar journey. Right now, it is in its infancy in terms of capacity. Nonetheless, the solutions it provides for facilities managers are fast gaining recognition.
Occupancy monitoring has become a mainstream part of real estate management
Sensor technology is now having its biggest impact by providing a uniquely accurate insight into office utilisation. Occupancy monitoring has become a mainstream part of real estate management after a period in which multiple technologies have attempted to provide a solution with greater and lesser degrees of success. For instance, there has been some work in ‘IP-sniffing’, that is, tracking people’s location in a building by monitoring their laptop network connection.
Sensors themselves have had a range of applications, such as tracking footfall through different areas or sensing movement through turnstiles. All of these technologies have been around for some time, but have encountered problems such as unreliability and inaccurate data, as well as ethical challenges as the boundary between measuring occupancy and analysing behaviour has been blurred.
Now, the advent of IoT and of low-cost, wifi-enabled sensing devices has added a dimension to the existing range of technologies being used to understand building utilisation. The impact of sensor technology is only set to increase as the ability to embed these devices in desks and meeting rooms is supported by ever-advancing software, which interprets the rich, accurate data these sensors are returning.
Sensors themselves have now been developed to a near-optimum point: they are cheap enough to be feasibly rolled out across an office, discreet, and have a battery life of 10 years. They are capable of collecting data second by second, down to the level of individual desks.
This knowledge is power. Once you can understand working practices with this level of accuracy and know how current occupants are using a space, it becomes significantly easier to design for future occupants.
Yet the transformational potential of these sensors lies in the system to which they are linked. The potential for intelligent buildings, which can start learning how they are being used and adapt the space accordingly, relies on the power of the software in the cloud.
This software makes sense of the data, turning raw numbers into intelligent solutions. There is a long way to go, but the IoT is certainly moving towards the state of artificial intelligence; even within the next 5 years, we will be seeing sensors linked to software systems capable of turning static buildings into dynamic workplaces.
In this way, sensors can feed into the connected office, with all the possibilities this presents. Occupancy sensors provide data that can be accessed by users at multiple interfaces. They can see in real time whether a meeting room or desk is being used from screens around the building or their mobile phone.
The sensors can even enter into dialogue with individual employees, alerting them to a free desk or enquiring whether they intend to return to a vacated desk that day. The future of sensor technology is not all about big data: once the office is connected, the live insights become important, enabling better navigation of the workspace by its users on a day-to-day basis.
As trends for flexible working continue, the workplace is becoming more rather than less complicated for the individual employee. Sensor technology is increasingly capable of simplifying their experience and will continue to make buildings more responsive to their occupants.
The only limit to what these technologies can achieve depends on how far we consider them an invasion of privacy. The ethical standards with which facilities management professionals work are very clear. For property managers, the chief and indeed only concern should be the performance of the building.
The line between measuring utilisation of workspace and monitoring people’s behaviour is one that must be clearly emphasised and strictly maintained
Facilities managers are not HR professionals, and their ethical framework depends on this distinction. The line between measuring utilisation of workspace and monitoring people’s behaviour is one that must be clearly emphasised and strictly maintained. Sensor technology enables this distinction by collecting data in which individual users remain anonymous.
In order to progress sensor technology, property professionals responsible for implementing it must ensure that this distinction is properly understood.
Facilities management professionals need the soft skills to communicate clearly that, while monitoring a desk, employers are not monitoring behaviour. The reason that sensor technology is installed in a building is to make the workplace responsive to the increasingly flexible working habits of employees.
Individuals are to a very large extent in favour of the connected office and the benefits it brings, and for this reason they tend to respond positively to effective communication about sensors. The ability to communicate this message well is crucial to the success of sensor technology.
Since sensor technology is designed to be as intuitive as possible, the technological skills demanded of property professionals are limited. Most make use of consultants and vendors who provide expert technical support and data analytics. While a basic awareness of data analytics helps the process of implementing sensor insight, the most important characteristic for these professionals is the recognition that user experience is central to their role. Sensor technology is not about building the most efficient office, but about a creating a workspace that operates in the style that users need. In efforts to create a building that can adapt to people’s use of it, sensor technology is not optional but fundamental.
Paul Statham is founder and CEO of Condeco Software