Are people counting sensors the smartest way to optimise your workspace?

Until recently the best way to get the any data or insight needed for workspace optimisation was to hire a few students armed with tablets, or even clipboards and a stopwatch. However, this labour-intensive manual people counting solution came with many limitations. Though it provides some insight into how a workspace is being used, it is often met questions around the accuracy of the data, slowing down the decision-making process, but reducing buy-in from management and staff on the changes suggested.

With more and more functions being enhanced and automated by technology, the new smart office space sensors can accurately track how people are using the space, in real time, enabling you to get detailed insight on usage and trends over any period of time. But, are all people sensors created equal and how do you know you are choosing the best sensor for your business?

Driven by a passion for technology and occupancy sensors, we did our research to uncover what is out there and how it compares.

It’s important to start by understanding what you want to achieve. Is your focus workspace optimisation, reducing the cost of real estate, improving energy efficiency or striving to create an environment that boosts the productivity of your staff?

Next, you need to know what your current environment looks like. Do you use hotdesking, does everyone have offices, what building management systems do you have in place etc. Every solution has its unique advantages, but there could be trade-offs.

Things to consider

In working with our customers, we recommend using four different criteria that need to be considered when evaluating a potential sensor:

  • the type of environment you want to measure
  • data granularity and frequency of reporting
  • total cost of ownership (TCO), and
  • retaining privacy of staff.

The environment

As office environments differ, the type of workspace you need to measure will influence the type of sensor that is right for you. Do you only want to measure desk occupancy or does your measurement solution need to cover meeting rooms and co-lab spaces which could consist of couches, people standing around a white board or “drag and sit” chairs and bean bags? And what about areas like reception or coffee pause areas? Depending on your needs, make sure the sensor you select does not leave out a large chunk of your space which could lead to inaccurate decisions.

Data granularity and frequency of reporting

When evaluating an occupancy sensing solution, you’ll need to consider the level of insight required for your unique business. Do you want access to number of people using a specific area, utilization over a period, real-time occupancy insight or is integration to existing systems a key factor? For example, a simple occupancy sensor for switching on lights can drive energy efficiency but might not measure utilisation effectively. If you want to ensure full coverage of all types of areas and measure, and even predict, utilisation over a period of time, a sensor with advanced people counting capability and the ability to communicate in real time would be required. The configuration of your infrastructure also impacts the usability of your data; choosing a wired vs. battery-powered system can impact performance, while using wi-fi to transmit all the data could impact the quality of data.

Total cost of ownership

When considering the investment required for occupancy sensors, remember the 3-30-300 rule. The 3-30-300 rule of thumb provides a breakdown of how an organisation occupancy cost is typically distributed. $3 for utilities, $30 for rent and $300 for their employee costs (salaries, benefits, etc.). Though these number aren’t set in stone, they put savings into perspective. Though one of the biggest initial savings are rental costs as a result of optimisation, savings on utilities are minor.  In the long term, the benefit of staff productivity far exceeds an initial saving of utilities and rental.

A holistic cost assessment should include costs for hardware, software, hosting or server costs, the cost of initial installation, replacement parts (like batteries) and maintenance required. Your decision criteria should consider the trade-offs between these costs and different sensor types. For example, the initial ease and flexibility of battery powered sensors could become a long-term maintenance challenge.

Privacy concerns

You can’t ignore today’s privacy concerns when it comes to sensors in the workplace. If privacy is not an issue, you could take very comprehensive approach with detailed video recording, facial recognition and even track emotions of staff. While this solution will probably provide you with the most detailed information, it might not be widely accepted by staff and in some countries illegal. A more acceptable option in the enterprise space would be to select an edge-sensor. In this case images are typically processed on the sensor itself and not stored or shared, and only data is pushed through for analytics purposes. A good guideline is to review the privacy policy and practices and if see if they meet common standards like GDPR. While under desk sensors only use heat and movement to track desk usage, there are numerous cases where employees have perceived this as an invasion of privacy.

Summary of Occupancy Sensors

Vibration sensors PIR Under desk sensors Edge People Occupancy sensor (Edge Video Analytics)
How they work Sensors for vibration are sensors that operate according to different mechanical or optical principles to detect vibrations Passive infrared sensor (PIR sensor) is an electronic sensor that detects body heat and movement around a certain parameter in its field of view.

This sensor would be placed under the desk, all seats in a boardroom etc

Edge People Occupancy sensor uses advanced video analytics to measure and processes how people use a space.

These sensors are installed on the ceiling and typically, all processing is done on the sensor itself.

Type of environment to measure Provides occupied/unoccupied data in a variety of locations using soft seating. Provides real-time and historical insight on occupied/unoccupied data in in a variety of locations like meeting rooms or under desks.

Provides a battery configuration option for ease of installation. But requires maintenance in the long term.

Provides the most flexibility for real-time and historical insight on people count, traffic lines and occupied/unoccupied data over desks, meeting rooms or discrete locations like in open areas, co-lab spaces or in rooms.
Data granularity and frequency of reporting Limited use cases. Wired sensors under desks enable increased data frequency but limit flexibility in mounting locations.

Provides an analytics platform for real-time and historic insight

Ceiling installed sensors provide more coverage of how people use the entire workspace including sitting, standing or walking. Provides an analytics platform for real-time and historic insight
Total cost of ownership Requires upfront installation cost and recurring annual usage costs. Requires upfront installation cost and recurring annual usage costs.
Privacy Relatively no privacy concerns. Relatively no privacy concerns.
Although unnecessary, under desk sensors could cause some concern with staff.
As all processing is done on the sensor itself, there are no privacy concerns. Ask your vendor to provide information on privacy practices or certificates.

Using real-time data vs historical insight

When it comes to workspace optimisation, people occupancy sensors provide accurate actionable insight on how people use all areas of their workspace. Trends on utilisation provide valuable insight for space planning and optimisation and the ability to measure the impact of your changes after the redesign and optimisation.

Real-time data allows you to put sensor feedback into immediate use i.e. where is a meeting room available right now? In addition, there are a variety of employee-facing solutions and apps that boosts the overall employee experience i.e. the ability to see availability and book a desk in real-time.

People occupancy sensors provide interior designers, workspace planners and facility managers the ability to make decisions based on accurate data. With a wide variety of sensors available, you might not know which is the right one for your business. Reach out to us if you would like some more guidance on which the right sensor for you is.

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