How Occupancy Sensors Can Increase Your Real Estate ROI

T3 Advisors, San Francisco, Seattle Caroline Quick

By Caroline Quick, Senior Principal at T3 Advisors
Thanks to advances in workplace technology, we can gather data to create office spaces that support your employees’ working habits—with the potential to save millions of dollars (and wasted square footage) along the way.

In 2020 the open-office debate will continue to evolve as we redefine how and where we work. While current studies that completely reject the open office may be flawed, it’s true that a “one-size-fits-all,” wide-open office design simply does not work. Learning from others’ mistakes, many companies have realized that the best approach to the modern workspace is to offer choices that truly resonate with their employees. 

To achieve this, companies are working to be much more strategic about their design decisions. How can you make sure that your workplace is a true reflection of how your employees work? Thanks to advances in workplace technology, it’s possible to gather actual data to create an office space that supports the working habits of your organization—with the potential to save millions of dollars (and wasted square footage) along the way.

How We Used to Gather Workplace Data

Gathering information around how our employees use space is nothing new. Historically, consultants have been hired to be physically present in the office to observe employee habits and traffic over a period of weeks or months. More recently, this information has also been supported by badge data and conference room booking tools. Unfortunately, these collection methods present several potential points of failure: 

• Incomplete and Inaccurate Data: The data collected is not perfect and it is impossible to document space use and traffic flow at all times. Usually, a space utilization study only happens when prepping for a major milestone within the space: a move, restack/reorg, or lease event. This means that it is very likely that we are missing key insights about how we are using our space and how it impacts the culture of our growing organization.
• Time-Intensive: In order to collect a true sample, live observation must happen over several weeks during various time frames. It is also incredibly time-consuming to comb through calendar booking data and verify that meetings actually took place with the number of attendees indicated.

Offices need to respond to how users are actually using space. With real estate prices edging higher every day, every square foot counts. It’s critical to stay ahead of the game and implement change in a way that is proactive instead of reactive.

How Occupancy Sensors Can Arm Us with Better Information

For the first time in over a decade, new technology allows us to improve our understanding of how we utilize space. At the forefront of this conversation are occupancy, or space utilization sensors. Many quickly growing companies are interested in these sensors because they provide unique insights into their space and culture without the historical barriers of space utilization data.

How does this technology work? Small, unobtrusive sensors installed around the office measure either vibration, passive infrared motion, indoor location mapping (via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi triangulation), or imaging in space, and return analytics around traffic patterns and usage.

The data can be surprising, returning rich information about the space—how employees are (or aren’t) using space, how they move within it, and how they interact with it. This information can highlight areas requiring deeper investigation. Ultimately, the resulting changes, whether in the physical environment or with employee work habits, will likely save the company money, allowing every square inch to be used to its fullest potential.

Potential Privacy Concerns

As with all new technologies, there is often resistance to the unknown, especially when sensors and cameras are involved. Employees express concerns around the feeling of “being watched,” and organizations need to make sure sensors are hacker resistant. Most of the sensor companies understand requirements around privacy and the need for secure data handling. For those using cameras for input, the images collected are not stored beyond the actual individual sensor unit, which limits the possibility of images of your space getting into the wrong hands.

6 Things to Consider When Deciding if Occupancy Sensors Are Right for Your Company

Occupancy sensors are a great solution for companies headed towards a quick growth trajectory, considering a physical move, or exploring new and creative workplace strategies. Although sensors can require a significant financial investment, making data-driven real estate decisions often outweighs the cost of undoing poor space-planning decisions in the future.

Here are six other points you should consider before taking the plunge with sensors:

  • Define your goals around data collection. Understanding why you want to implement is key to identify which sensor technology is right for you. Are you looking to move to an unassigned seating scenario and need to understand which teams are ideal candidates? Perhaps you want to make sure that you don’t replace the most popular lounge spaces in your office with desks?
  • Evaluate how the technology will integrate with your existing workplace infrastructure. A seamless integration between the sensor output and your workplace management system will make your data collection and analysis that much easier and more valuable.
  • Decide between hard-wired or battery-powered equipment. Consider which sensor technology fits your individual company needs as well as the type of sensor you want to install. Many options can be battery-powered or hard wired. While battery-enabled sensors may be a lower barrier to entry as they don’t require infrastructure changes, there are limitations on how often you can ping these devices for data collection before depleting battery life, which may impact information accuracy.
  • Test before implementing an entire program. Select a test area within your office to test the technology before going all in. This will allow you to get a better understanding of the data output and ensure that it meets your goals.
  • Engage your employees for change. Adding something into the space that gives employees the sense that they are being watched can create uneasiness. Hit the rumors head-on! Share information around why the units are being installed, as well as what the actual sensor output looks like. We have some really creative ways to do this in a culturally appropriate way. Reach out for more info.
  • Remember that quantitative data requires interpretation. Sensors and the insights returned are not the holy grail and won’t solve all of your workspace challenges. Sensors can help you identify areas of focus, either successes or potential concerns. However, a human perspective can help to more deeply understand behaviors and how to best address them.

While we’re still at the forefront of sensor implementation, the potential insights we can gain with this technology are incredibly exciting. The data gathered from occupancy sensors can lead to a work environment uniquely tailored to the specific needs of your employees—helping make the case for important decisions on how your space is designed and used, rather than making decisions without the full picture based on one person’s “gut instinct.” We’ve helped many companies implement different types of occupancy sensors, interpret the data, and advise how they can get the best return on their real estate and workplace costs. Interested in finding out if sensors are right for your company? Our team is here to help.

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