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What’s New in Smart Building
Technology: Occupancy Sensors

Why Smart Building Technology is Essential
for the Modern Workplace

Ian Morely

By Ian Morley

The corporate workplace is changing before our eyes. Gone are the days when every employee sat at their desk from 9:00am to 5:00pm. The workforce is increasingly mobile, and as a result, more and more office space sits unused every day.

With real estate being one of the top costs faced by employers, smart companies are turning to smart building technology to help them optimize the use of their workplaces.

Why Smart Building Technology is Essential for the Modern Workplace

When strategically planning for new spaces, ending leases, accommodating growth or consolidation as well as the never-ending requests for more space from business units, workplace teams must understand a vast array of information about their portfolio. That’s where smart building technology is essential: occupancy sensors are used to collect data about how space is actually being used in order to drive those tough decisions.

What’s more, forward thinking companies are no longer assuming that they need a desk for each worker, and are moving to free address work environments to consolidate space and provide a better employee experience. When moving to this new way of working, it’s critical to collect accurate data about how workspaces are utilized in order to plan the right amount of space assigned to each team or business unit. Occupancy sensors and other smart building technology help the workplace team to make fact-based decisions when looking at space requirements. Utilization data also drives wayfinding tools that employees need to locate colleagues and places to work in a free address environment.

Related article: What Does the Agile Work Environment Look Like

Smart Building Technology: Utilization Data Collection Sensors

Driven by the need for workplace utilization data, there are numerous smart building technology options on the market for collecting information about space usage. These are some of the most widely used types of occupancy sensors:

Lighting Sensors
Smart lighting is a popular smart building technology option because it helps reduce environmental impact and save money on power. The lights have motion sensors that detect occupancy and control the lights throughout the day. Often smart lighting solutions have a back end that can also collect utilization data.

Watch these videos to learn more about lighting sensors:

Space/Desk Sensors
Tracking utilization using occupancy sensors installed at each space (desk, room, breakout space, etc.) provides precise results at an anonymous level (without knowing who is using the space). A deeper understanding of how teams are working can be achieved by pairing the utilization data with allocation data.

Facial/People Recognition
Using specialized cameras that process images in real-time to count the number of people in a space (but do not record the images) it is possible to collect utilization information in certain cases. Some solutions can also do facial recognition to identify who is in the space, although these solutions often raise privacy and security concerns.

Low Energy Bluetooth (iBeacon)
Low energy Bluetooth solutions (such as iBeacon) use existing smart phone technology to provide much more accurate indoor positioning than traditional Wi-Fi. This smart building technology can capture utilization across a space and improve the reliability of location services information.

Making sense of these technologies and deciding what’s right for you can seem like an overwhelming task. To learn more about the pros and cons of different types of occupancy sensors as well as other smart building technology options for collecting utilization data, take a look at this helpful Guide to Measuring Workplace Utilization.

Occupancy Sensors: Important Features to Consider

When comparing different types and brands of occupancy sensors, look for these features to be sure you’ll be getting the most accurate and useful data for your requirements.

Wired vs. Wireless
Wireless occupancy sensors are easier and less expensive to install, not to mention easier to move around when you reconfigure your space. However, keep in mind that wireless sensors require batteries for power, which need to be checked and replaced periodically.

Watch this video to learn more about wireless sensors: Condeco Workspace Occupancy Sensor

Real Time Data
Some occupancy sensors report data continuously in real time, which is important for wayfinding tools that need current occupancy information to allow employees to find available space. Other sensors report data only periodically, which is fine for ongoing analysis and reporting.

Precision
It’s important to understand the level of precision that a sensor can report on. Can it count the number of people in a conference room? What is the diameter of the beam? How does it react to people walking by? In order to judge the accuracy of the data, you need to know the answers to these questions. To find out, you can ask vendors for details. In some cases, vendors will allow you to test the product to see how well it meets your precision requirements.

Communication with the cloud
How occupancy sensors communicates data is another critically important feature in smart building technology. If a sensor requires access to your network to communicate with the cloud, that can be a security concern. Wireless sensors that use an independent 4G connection are a better option, and can be rolled out faster without the need for installing cables or as much IT involvement.

API
In order to use data from the sensors to power a business intelligence or wayfinding application, the sensor system must provide an API for integration with third-party software tools.

Battery life
If you’re going wireless, consider the battery life since this can affect the cost to maintain the technology. Look for at least 2 years of battery life.

Physical features
Don’t overlook the size and placement of the sensor, since these factors can affect data integrity. Will they be installed on ceilings, walls, or under desks? Are the sensors noticeable and placed in awkward positions that make employees feel uncomfortable? Could the sensor be blocked, tampered with or accidentally damaged?

HVAC integration
Some cutting-edge occupancy sensors also monitor temperature and air quality, and integrate with HVAC and other building automation systems. These smart building technology options can help you cut operations costs as well as optimize space utilization.

Get the Most Benefit from Sensors with Software Integration

Here’s an important caveat to keep in mind: different types of sensors as well as other technologies used to collect workplace utilization data (such as badge swipe and RFID tags) all have their strengths and weaknesses. There is no one technology that will capture all the data you need to get a true picture of space utilization. That’s why most companies choose to implement a combination of smart building technology options.

So how can you make the best use of all the data captured by both sensors and other smart building technology options? It may seem overwhelming to think of pulling together all that data so that it’s useful to both employees and workplace teams. The way to overcome this hurdle is to implement a workplace management software system that integrates data from multiple sources and makes it fast and easy to access.

Wayfinding systems for employees

In a free address environment, companies are using workplace management software powered by real-time utilization data to help employees find workspace and find their colleagues. Just-in-time data is displayed via digital signage and kiosks that show floor plans with available desks highlighted. Employees also have the ability to search for a person to find their location, or for available conference rooms. In some systems, employees can even use a mobile app to find space.

These systems not only make employees more productive, but they also help overcome the objections raised by employees about being “watched” by sensors. When people understand how the data is being used and see how they personally benefit, those objections go away in a hurry.

Data analytics dashboards for workplace teams

For the workplace team, data analytics dashboards bring together all the data collected by smart building technology in a way that’s easy to access and analyze. Workplace teams can rely on this accurate information to drive decisions about moves, acquisitions and consolidations, as well as finding hidden vacancies where business units are holding onto desks that have not been used for months.

Here are some of the features to look for:

  • Views that show how utilization rates change over time: month to month, day to day, and even hour to hour

  • Ability to drill down by geography, including region, building, floor and even heat maps showing an area on a floor

  • Ability to relate the data to an allocation system to understand how various teams are using their space (or not)

  • A customizable dashboard that allows you to easily access the information that’s important to you

Just like navigating all the smart building technology options, evaluating workplace management software can be a challenge, since the systems on the market differ so much in scope, design and usability.

Here’s a resource that can help when you focus on the most important areas for comparison: 5 Critical Comparison Points for Workplace Management Software.

Guide to Managing Workplace Utilization

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