Enabling technologies for hot-desking in the flexible office

April 23, 2018 by David Rottelman, VP of global sales, PointGrab
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Enabling technologies for hot-desking in the flexible office

Driven by increased mobility and contemporary work dynamics, offices are now changing their space design to be much more agile, allowing for better space utilization while at the same time providing employees with greater flexibility to choose when, where and how to work.

Traditional office spaces are designed on the assumption that there is a predictable and relatively static workforce, and assign each employee to a specific desk. Today’s reality, where at any given time only 50% to 60% of the office space is occupied, the traditional office design is far from optimized, with unutilized space leading to about 30% waste in operational expenditures.
But saving on operational costs is only one driver for flexible offices. Companies are motivated to improve  their employees’ productivity and wellbeing. This can be achieved by promoting collaborative work and occupant interactions, as well as providing employees with real-time information about available services. Researchers have recently demonstrated that spaces designed to promote employee interactions can create positive outcomes.

Hot-desking and activity based working

Whatever the motivation for the flexible office design, one of the fundamental changes in modern offices is the departure from the traditional fixed assignment of one employee per specific workstation and the introduction of workspace management systems, traditionally dubbed hot-desking, to assign seats on-demand. Recently the concept of hot-desking has evolved and is being replaced by Activity Based Working (ABW), which expands the traditional hot-desking model to allow for multiple types of work spaces within one office.  Still, applying a flexible on-demand seat assignment system is a key element, whatever terminology is used.
Although old school users have adopted a basic reservation management software (called hoteling) for flexibly assigning seats, companies are moving away from this dated approach as it is less efficient. For a seat-on-demand system to be effective, it is essential to use real-time information to dynamically determine which desks are occupied at a given time and which are not. There are two main technologies that are currently used for providing this information.

Available sensing solutions for hot-desking

Passive Infra-Red (PIR)  Systems
PIR systems use motion detectors equipped with a wireless communication capability, commonly mounted under individual desks to detect occupancy. A fully deployed system comprises a large number of these sensors that are linked to a small number of network receivers. The sensors’ application software then analyzes the data in real time and performs the flexible seat management.
The upside of this solution is that it is field proven and has already been adopted by a few enterprises. It is also passive from the occupants’ standpoint, not requiring them to take any action. While this solution is an improvement relative to basic hoteling, it suffers some serious shortcomings. For example, it is prone to tampering and hacking; it is perceived as intrusive (i.e. induces a feeling of “personal tracking”); it lacks accuracy (e.g. insensitive to motionless users and sometimes designates desks as “occupied” when people are just passing by); it designates a desk as “unoccupied” when in fact an employee left his position only temporarily; it requires continuous maintenance, and is not future proof. Finally, it is relatively expensive. According to publications, the price of a single PIR-based sensor that supports a single desk ranges between $100 -$150, and the application software that goes with the sensors costs about $36 per desk per year.

Hot-desking docking stations

This type of solution does not employ any sensors but rather requires the use of a special docking station. To enable hot-desking, an employee plugs his or her laptop into the docking station and punches a personal code to login. The system identifies the user, registers the desk as occupied and then can automatically access the user’s personalized settings.
The upside of this solution is that no external sensing solution is needed, and it is less costly than PIR. The downside, however, includes several weaknesses.  First, it is not passive and requires occupants to actively login to the system; second, this approach is less friendly for mobile occupants that prefer wireless communication as they are moving around the office space; third, this solution does not support all PC models and operating systems; fourth, it does not protect occupants’ privacy; and fifth, it requires cable installation for every single desk, and finally it is not future proof. The price of a single hot-desking docking station is in the $130-$200 range.

Image-based smart sensors

Image-based smart sensors are an emerging sensing solution that provides highly accurate and detailed information about occupants’ whereabouts, including desk occupancy, at a lower cost while protecting the occupants’ privacy. Using ceiling mounted image-based sensors with edge-analytics processing, these sensors deliver unprecedented data on occupants’ presence, location, count and movement. Being edge analytics devices, all processing is performed at the sensor level and no image is stored or transmitted, ensuring that occupants’ privacy is fully protected. For the hot-desking use case, desks are designated as “areas of interest” within the sensor field of view. Occupancy is determined when the sensor detects occupants in the areas of interest. Having a wide field of view, a single sensor can oversee up to 10 desks, making deployment efficient and cost effective.
The benefits enabled by image-based smart sensors are substantial and basically address most of the shortcomings associated with the other available hot-desking technologies. Moreover, the cost per desk of the smart sensor solution is less than 50% of the PIR solution (3 year usage estimate) and about 25% less than the docking station solution. But even more importantly, the data provided by smart sensors far exceeds the single hot-desking use case to support a full scale flexible office. With their powerful occupancy analytics, image-based smart sensors are effective for optimizing the office space, enhancing occupants’ productivity and improving their wellbeing.

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