How does technology fit into the future of the workplace?
The pandemic changed the conversation about workplace tech.
The movement toward smart, responsive office buildings has been slowly trending upward for the past 15 years. The benefits of workplace technologies have always been clear, from informing money-saving real estate decisions to increasing employee satisfaction, but most companies didn’t consider it an immediate need.
COVID-19 changed that.
Density’s CEO Andrew Farah and Head of Software Product Emre Sonmez teamed up to discuss the future of the workplace and how data and technology support the changing office landscape. Below is a summary of their conversation.
- The pandemic fast-tracked workplace technology needs. The conversation began as a safety necessity and has morphed into ways to improve productivity, design, and sustainability.
- Technology is proving invaluable for resolving the unique challenges companies face as they build roadmaps for the post-pandemic workplace.
- The actionable data collected from workplace technologies supports a range of use cases, from real-time floor occupancy maps to lease avoidance and much more.
After March 2020, every workplace team’s top concern became how to bring people back to the office safely. There was no roadmap for this, and teams had to explore ways to answer their many questions. How do we ensure the building doesn’t exceed the new maximum capacity? What should the cleaning schedule look like based on office usage? How do we rearrange the space to ensure social distancing?
These safety concerns centered around understanding office utilization and how to improve workplace policies and design. “Safety became the forefront of everyone’s discussion,” Andrew says. “What’s so interesting about that is that it elevated the folks in the office to having daily conversations with C-level folks about the strategy of the company.”
“Your safety policy would impact how often people showed up or whether they would get sick,” he continues. “That [conversation] trend has persisted; it’s just morphed from safety into the design, use, and allocation of space. The thing that architects, designers, and real estate professionals have been talking about for years is now at the forefront of a lot of these discussions.”
Moving from anecdotal information to reliable data
This new focus on office utilization and design has accelerated many organizations’ interest in finding the perfect technology solutions to help them make data-backed decisions. In the past, companies collected usage data through observational studies or anecdotes. For example, the workplace team might hear from an employee that the office is always busiest early in the morning. That’s one person’s personal experience, and it could be correct or wildly inaccurate.
One person’s personal experience could be correct — or wildly inaccurate.
Subjective information about how workers use a space can be helpful in some circumstances, but it doesn’t provide a concrete picture of the average occupancy of a space relative to its capacity or the utilization of space relative to a goal.
With technology fueling workplace information systems, companies have objective data. And it’s not just numbers without context. “People counting is boring by itself, but it’s really interesting in the context of other information,” Andrew says. “We want to make it really easy for users to provide context…so we can give you interesting outcomes about how these spaces are being used relative to the context they’re in.”
The combination of data and situational context is a powerful tool for making intelligent decisions about when to expand or reduce your real estate footprint, ways to design configurable spaces that encourage productivity, or how to create smart offices that are responsive to the people using them.
Occupancy technology options
There are two main systems that measure how people use physical spaces. Organizations can choose between a camera- or sensor-based system. The best choice for your business will depend on your primary goal and the level of privacy liability you’re comfortable with. For instance, if your objective for occupancy measurement is security-focused, a high-resolution camera system is the logical choice.
With camera-based systems, you have the option of high- or low-resolution cameras. High-res cameras are great for security and facial recognition, and low-res cameras are aimed at collecting utilization data.
Low-res camera systems are often called “optical sensors” by vendors. Andrew explains that this highlights that “their goal is not to actually capture video. Their goal is to capture utilization data. They use low-res cameras to try to avoid the concern around PII.”
The camera captures “signs of life,” such as a person at their work station or their laptop or coat on the desk. This visual data is fed into a computer that processes it into pure utilization data, but that original information can be reversed engineered to identify individuals.
“[Density’s] philosophy is that the concept of ‘signs of life’ invites a visibility into someone’s work station and what they’re doing in a way that can ultimately hit legal or liability concerns. If you can determine what stuff is on a desk, it’s not a far cry to move into other things like being able to see what people are working on or what they type into a computer,” Andrew says.
A sensor-based system avoids this issue by only measuring human presence. There are no cameras, so it’s not possible to capture information that can identify individuals. The sensors provide precise measurement of use in real-time with data that is anonymous at source.
The future of the office is measurable
Workplace teams face many challenges, from choosing the right size office to managing desk reservations for hybrid work models. Modern office technology is rising to meet those challenges, and the use cases for occupancy and utilization systems are expanding rapidly.
Andrew says, “The pandemic has made it fundamentally clear how blind we are to the actual use of space. We are all blind without measurement, which is why our primary mission [at Density] is to begin with measurement and end with improvement.”
Emre lays out potential use cases where customers can benefit from the measurements and other data that workplace technology provides.
- Identify hot spots. “You might want to have open spaces where employees can walk into an office…and see what the hot spots on the floor plan are…You might have nudges, just like if you’re looking at a coffee shop on Google Maps, for when a certain space tends to be free or busy, and you can [better] navigate the space that way.”
- Improve employee productivity. “How, as a company, can you enable employees to be productive in a space? What does that look like? How do you find the right balance of having enough space for people?” Without data, you have to take a guess about the best floor plan, put it into action, observe and solicit feedback, make corrections, and repeat. Having reliable data from the start means that you can make more informed decisions and reduce the time it takes to get to a viable solution.
- Right-size your real estate footprint. A company’s real estate footprint is often its second-biggest expense after employees. You can see immediate, tangible financial benefits by instrumenting your portfolio and then using the data to right-size your footprint. Andrew shared that one Density client did this and found that their average occupancy rate was so low they didn’t need to renew the lease on one of their offices, saving them $5 million over five years.
There are countless other potential use cases for quality occupancy technology. Andrew makes it clear that almost any measurement system you choose to deploy will allow you to make smart improvements to your workplace. “Sensors and technology are interesting, but [the specific options] almost don’t matter, provided they can check a certain set of boxes around accuracy in real-time.”
No matter which type of office technology you choose to deploy, you can expect to gain actionable insights that will lead your organization to new heights of productivity, employee satisfaction, and portfolio utilization.