Getty Images

As hybrid work shrinks offices, motion sensor use might grow

Hybrid work is changing when people work and how they use office space -- employees might want more collaboration space. Measuring office use could be a job for motion sensors.

HR managers who want to know how hybrid work changes office use might get help from motion sensors, which can answer questions other systems cannot.

Calendars as well as desk and office reservation systems can pinpoint when hybrid work employees will be in the office, but not whether those employees will be working at a desk or in the cafeteria, a Zoom room or some other office nook. Motion sensors can add a layer of intelligence and help HR managers discover whether conference room and desk reservations measure up to actual use.

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

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

"The first challenge today is to make employees want to go 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 who use desk reservation systems tend to reserve the same seat each time, which hurts the concept of flexibility, Guigui said. "In most cases, the work at home -- on average, two days a week -- avoids the problem of overoccupancy," he said.

If HR managers want a reservation system, Guigui recommended that they instruct employees to reserve a seat in an office zone without selecting a specific seat. Such a system "will keep the flex spirit of workplace strategy," he said.

A graphic that lists questions that motion sensors can help answer.

What sensors track

A sensor can provide broad recognition of something that moves, whether a human or an animal, said Fred Katz, an electrical engineering consultant in Hauppauge, N.Y., with patents in sensor technology -- including one that addressed the problem of distinguishing between a person and a pet. The typical motion sensor gives the equivalent of 32 pixels of information, and "if you had a TV with 32 pixels of information, you would have a very crude 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, according to experts. There are a variety of 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 can't collect information about employees.

Scheduling software programs alone "don't marry the schedule with reality," said Ron Rock, CEO and co-founder of Microshare. Companies have different shared amenity spaces, for instance, and the question is, "What's being used, and exactly how is it being used?"

Sensors are both very valuable and totally worthless.
John VivadelliExecutive vice president of workplace solutions, Tango

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

"Sensors are both very valuable and totally worthless," Vivadelli said, meaning that sensors will accomplish 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 objectives, the metrics to be measured, and the type of data they need, and "then you pick the technology," he said.

But Vivadelli can see a strong motion sensor use case for targeted needs, such as conference room management. Many rooms remain unoccupied despite being reserved or are in use despite being listed as open in a reservation system. Sensors can detect the presence of people and feed that data to the occupancy management system, he said.

Cost can be an issue

A problem with using sensors might be the cost of deployment, said Craig Gillespie, vice president of the occupier division at MRI Software in Solon, Ohio.

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

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

Kevin Nanney, vice president and general manager of workplace service delivery at ServiceNow, said employees are now going to offices for specific reasons, such as collaboration and meetings. He said the usage data collected by sensors helps companies understand whether they are using the space correctly -- both in its configuration and maintenance, as well as leasing the right amount of space.

The payback "comes from the cost savings of having that utilization data and what you do with the real estate," Nanney said.

Commercial buildings are getting more IoT and sensor technology in developing smart buildings that maximize environmental efficiency. Last year, NTT Research Inc. opened 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 that these tools will be mandatory for the "post-pandemic designed hybrid workplace."

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

Next Steps

Hybrid work drives changes to on-premises networks

Dig Deeper on Talent management

Business Analytics
Content Management
and ESG