Occupancy Sensors 101

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Occupancy sensors 101

Occupancy Sensors 101: Data-driven decision-making and quantitative measurement are transforming the commercial real estate industry as both owners and tenants seek better ways to plan, assess, and monitor workspaces. It stands to reason. Real estate costs are the second largest business expense for most companies. Given this, companies want to ensure they right size their real estate investments for maximum efficiency.

But real estate decisions affect much more than “just” lease or purchase costs. The right work environment drives workforce productivity and encourages desirable behaviors like collaboration, information sharing, and security.

It’s never been easy to get real estate decisions right, and with the advent of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the challenges grew even more difficult. Any assumptions we made about workplace occupancy based on relatively simple measures like employee counts are now thrown out the window as trends like hybrid work, evolving team dynamics, and the changing nature of work transform our organizations.

DATA-DRIVEN DECISION-MAKING AND RE PROFESSIONALS

Over the past two decades, most business functions have been transformed by data-driven decision-making. While real estate and office planning have become data-driven more slowly than disciplines like sales and marketing, savvy real estate leaders are now embracing the collection and analysis of data as a critical component of intelligent decision-making.

Occupancy sensors are the keystone of any effort to bring data-driven decision-making to real estate and office planning decisions. This post from XY Sense will outline what these sensors are, the various available technologies for sensors, and some of the most important criteria to consider as you evaluate alternatives for occupancy sensor hardware and software.

When one considers the scale of real estate investment and the impact of real estate decisions on workplace efficiency and employee productivity, the financial case for accurate measurement becomes clear. Most real estate teams can point to vivid examples of how inaccurate or incomplete workplace information has led to poor decisions in the past. For example, many companies are “on the hook” for mothballed floors and disused spaces in their physical locations because of overestimated needs. Some of those same companies, and many other businesses, can point to shortages of conference rooms, collaboration areas, and even equipped workstations as examples of underinvestment.

While occupancy sensors do represent a material investment for companies, real-world examples provide ample evidence that the benefits of occupancy sensors far outweigh their relatively modest system costs.

What are Occupancy Sensors

Occupancy sensors are devices used to measure and analyze the presence of people in a building, floor, or office area. These devices use one of several different observation and tracking methodologies to detect the presence of an individual or individuals in a given area.

Occupancy sensors come in many types and serve many possible purposes. The simplest sensors are designed to control an area’s light, heat, and ventilation based on whether an individual(s) is present. These are often called wall switch occupancy sensors, lighting control sensors, vacancy sensors, or conference room/office motion sensor devices. By shutting off utilities in vacant areas, companies can lower costs and progress on their “green” and sustainability initiatives. Another category of simple sensors is the desk sensor, which measures whether a specific workstation is in use. These help organizations manage unassigned desks for ideal occupant density and utilization.

Notwithstanding the value these basic sensors can offer a business, this blog post focuses on sensors that do much more. More advanced occupancy sensors provide critical information and insights to real estate and human resources teams. There are two types of advanced occupancy sensors that are relevant to this discussion:

Occupancy Sensors 101: Occupancy Entry and Exit Sensors

Image: XY Sense Entry Sensor

Entry and exit sensors provide insight into how many people are entering and exiting a facility, floor, or area, when and where they are entering and exiting, and how occupancy patterns compare by hour/day/week/month/etc. Real estate and human resource teams can use this data to assess macro-level office usage patterns.

Occupancy Sensors 101: Occupancy Area Sensors

Image: XY Sense Occupancy Sensor

Area sensors monitor occupancy in a specific region of an office, like a floor or area on a floor. This helps real estate teams understand which office regions and associated resources are used during a given period. Depending on the system and technology you deploy, you may also get granular information on which resources in the area are in use. For example, the best systems can tell you which desks, collaboration areas, and conference rooms are in use and how many people are occupying those areas.

Occupancy Sensors 101: Occupancy Sensor Analytics Platforms

Image: Occupancy Sensor Analytics Platform

Data from these sensors are delivered to platforms that aggregate the information and make it easier to analyze.

HOW DO OCCUPANCY SENSORS WORK?

Sensors are installed in wall-mount or ceiling-mount locations. As employees enter and spend time in a region, their presence is noted and transmitted to a data and insights platform.

Computer Vision Sensors 

Computer vision sensors visually analyze a work area and record the location of individuals in that zone. The location is recorded in geographic coordinates. Our company offers computer vision systems, so we call ourselves XY Sense — our systems track the XY coordinates of individuals in the sensor coverage area. Computer vision systems are highly accurate with little chance of over- or under-estimating occupancy in a zone. To ensure superior privacy and security, XY Sense spent several years building AI to power in-device processing so no images leave the sensor. This is important because some other computer vision sensors transmit images off the sensor, which can pose a security risk. With XY Sense you get superior precision from computer vision and unsurpassed security and privacy. Computer vision is most accurate when it positions sightings on a pre-established floor plan to truly understand the spaces used. XY Sense leads in this area as well, mapping client installations so we can deliver maximum insight. 

Passive Infrared or PIR Sensors 

PIR sensors scan an area for the movement of human (and other) heat sources to detect, locate, and note the presence of a person or people entering or working in a space. Heat is relatively easy to detect, so the underlying technology is straightforward but it struggles to discern between the presence of one versus multiple people. PIR sensors use a large lens to capture data from a zone or area of a workplace. One key challenge with PIR systems is that it is difficult for most equipment to discern between one or a group of people, so you may know a space is occupied but not necessarily by how many people.  Additionally, PIR sensors often have a much more limited detection range than computer vision systems, so you will need to install more devices to cover the same area.

Ultrasonic Sensors 

Ultrasonic sensors leverage technology similar to sonar or radar to pinpoint the location of moving objects in their sensor range. They use a transducer to send a pulse and record its “echo.” Ultrasonic sensors detect objects independent of light or color but can be negatively impacted by dirt on the device or obstructions that block the detection of individuals. They are accurate for proximity detection, but their potential range is smaller than other types of sensors, so you will need to install more devices in a given area. There can also be issues with interference when signals from multiple sensors create interference.

WIFI- or Bluetooth-Based Sensors 

WIFI or Bluetooth sensors detect the number of devices connecting to a network within a specific range. These are generally very low cost but are less accurate because not every person has a single WIFI-or Bluetooth-enabled device connecting to the system. Thus, an individual without a WIFI- or Bluetooth- enabled device is not detected. In contrast, another individual with multiple WIFI-enabled devices like a laptop and a smartphone can be recorded as multiple people. These systems are most relevant to organizations with a low need for precision and minimal operating budgets. 

WHY DEPLOY OCCUPANCY SENSORS IN YOUR WORKPLACE

Workplace sensors provide accurate and valuable data on how your workplace is being used, by how many, and how often. By measuring workplace occupancy levels and patterns, you can determine how to optimize the types of environments that will help boost efficiency and productivity. This ensures optimal workspace planning.

On a strategic level, occupancy sensors can empower you to:

  • Utilize existing space most effectively 
  • Determine the right resources to make available in spaces
  • Surface current and future space needs
  • Measure workplace policy compliance
  • Identify and implement ways to encourage desirable behaviors

By optimizing utilization of each resource or location in your office, you can optimize the mix of environments for maximum effectiveness.

Occupancy sensors can also provide tactical-level information to help make organizations more efficient. For example, occupancy sensors can help teams identify open meeting spaces more effectively than room-booking platforms. With real-time data, teams can see if the booked room is actually occupied or if a “free” room is actually in use. 

Real estate teams have had to make space decisions based on flawed or inaccurate data for decades. Workplace sensors enable these teams to make data-driven decisions to power agile workplace design.

HOW DO WORKPLACE SENSORS AFFECT BACK-TO-THE-OFFICE INITIATIVES?

Accurate data is even more critical today than in decades past because the nature of work is evolving rapidly. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the long-term trend toward hybrid work environments, so decision-makers can no longer make heuristic  choices based on measures like employee counts. Office and resource utilization levels fluctuate wildly, and HR teams must have comprehensive data on workplace utilization to reflect new work patterns. Return-to-office initiatives accelerate the need for reliable workplace occupancy data. 

From immediate practical considerations like do we have enough desks for returning workers to more nuanced explorations like does our space encourage greater collaboration on those days that workers are on-premise, precision data can help foster better decisions and more productive workplaces.

WHAT ARE SOME IMPORTANT SYSTEM ATTRIBUTES TO CONSIDER?

If you’ve decided to deploy workplace sensors in your office(s), here are some factors to consider as you compare systems.

  • Underlying technology: As discussed earlier in this post, different methodologies have different strengths and weaknesses.
  • Battery or electric: Some sensors are powered by batteries, while others use electricity. Batteries simplify installation but increase ongoing maintenance costs and create significant e-waste that contradicts sustainability initiatives. Companies that take the time to do a total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis usually find electric is the better alternative.
  • Number of power points: Assuming you choose electric, look for systems that can power multiple units with the same power point, like a daisy chain. This reduces installation costs and complexity.
  • Data capture frequency: Some sensors scan spaces every few seconds. Others – particularly battery-powered systems – limit scan frequency to conserve power. More frequent scanning means more accurate insights. 

  • Sensor range: Some scanners observe only small areas, while others can monitor extensive areas. Choose sensors that can track ~1000 square feet (~90 square meters) to reduce installation costs and maximize aesthetics.
  • Real-time v. delayed data: The best systems can show you precisely what is going on in your spaces as it happens. Other systems may delay data delivery, which means they are far less valuable for tasks like understanding if a conference room is available.
  • Security and privacy: Because sensors are physically present in your spaces, it’s essential to inquire about security and privacy safeguards. The best systems are designed to perform the key insights discovery inside the device (called “edge processing”) and cannot transmit images or other data that could compromise business security. 

WANT MORE INFORMATION?

This post only scratches the surface of workplace sensors and their value to organizations. As you explore your options, if you’d like to get specific advice on your spaces and goals, please get in touch with our team! We’d love to hear from you.

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