Smart Spaces Enable a Flexible Future at Work

By Graham Martin, Chairman & CEO, EnOcean Alliance

After a long period where workplaces have been closed or limited in capacity, many people have experienced the benefits of working from home – at least some of the time. Many, too, will not be sorry to avoid the daily commute through gridlocked roads, crowded stations, buses or trains. Those returning to the workplace after lockdown will find it a strange experience with the mandatory distancing, shielding and traffic management. Fortunately, smart spaces and new technologies will make workplaces safer, healthier and happier.

A consensus is currently building around the use of flexible, connected energy harvesting sensors to create ‘safe and smart’ spaces. Pilot projects have demonstrated the benefits for an office environment, in which sensors are used to monitor open-plan desk areas and meeting rooms. Deployment of smart, connected and battery-free sensors can be utilised not only to optimise usage through creation of smart spaces and smart buildings, but also to keep workers safe and infection-free.

Counting the cost of wasted resources

Economics will be a major consideration in a post-coronavirus world that is looking to reduce costs and improve productivity. During the normal working day, not all desks are used all the time, and meeting rooms are not occupied for the majority. Given the price of office space, this is wasteful – and expensive. Some people will continue to work from home as the pandemic subsides but there will be a need to manage and maintain flexibility in the office, shop or factory.

Effective and flexible management of workspaces is highly relevant to the early post-lockdown phases, where social distancing requires a limitation of the number of people in any given area. Cost of space in “dumb” buildings can rarely be calculated with certainty because organisations have not routinely measured the usage and occupancy of their valuable real estate. Organisations need to factor-in the related costs of cleaning, heating and equipping the under-used workspace.

Sensors for smart spaces

The basic requirement is for solutions that automatically and reliably detect which workspaces are free. Sensors for counting people, heatmapping and room occupancy should be wireless, ensuring no limits to the areas being monitored. Ideally, they will be battery-free to eliminate the need for replacement and repair.

Examples of the kind of sensor with particular relevance in the post-COVID ‘new normal’ include desk occupancy monitors. A self-powered vibration sensor placed on a chair or desk indicates occupancy. If too many are occupied in any given space, then building staff could be notified or an alarm set off. Occupancy sensing in work areas, conference rooms or restrooms can also be used to ensure “cleaning on demand” – highly important especially in COVID 19 times. Data can direct cleaning teams to areas that have been used, and avoid the risk of them cleaning areas that haven’t actually been visited. Emerging solutions include the ‘People Counter’ an innovation currently under trial within the Alliance eco-system. This intelligent occupancy sensor measures infrared light and when programmed accordingly, will advise when the number of people in that room exceeds recommended distancing guidance.

Once such an infrastructure is in place, it opens the possibilities of truly smart spaces. Examples include the ability to tailor a work area to the needs and preferences of the user, with automatic adjustment of temperature, humidity, lighting and air quality. Workspaces and meeting rooms can be booked at short notice, based on live and real-time availability. This type of solution is already here, as companies are already building smart spaces with wireless, battery-free sensors.

Happier, safer and healthier

The new requirement to keep workers safe and infection-free is completely in line with established trends towards smart spaces and smart buildings – trends that are well-supported through deployment of smart, connected and battery-free sensors. This will soon pivot to support the creation of ‘safe and smart’ spaces. With energy harvesting technology, building managers can fit the sensor they want, where they want it and as requirements and regulations for space use change, add further interoperable sensors from other vendors.

The need to maintain social distancing puts new pressure on office infrastructure. Companies will have to reduce the occupancy of their spaces. Making those spaces smart can mitigate the financial impact by ensuring that they are now used to their safe capacity, and serviced, heated and ventilated in line with actual usage.

As well as delivering a safe COVID-sensitive working environment, accurate monitoring real-world usage of desks, meeting rooms and rest room facilities brings further possibilities. For example, cleaning teams can be effectively directed to maintain high standards of hygiene in areas that have seen use, without dissipating time and energy cleaning little or unused spaces. In the new concept of smart restroom utilisation, amenities are equipped with sensors to count the number of people in the room, detect the status of door locks, count the paper towels and measure the levels of soap in their dispensers. With accurate and timely information available, restrooms can be cleaned when they are empty, and restocked only when necessary. It is altogether more effective, healthy and safe compared with rota-bound janitoring.

Sensors based on EnOcean energy harvesting technology and delivered by Alliance members are cable-free, so are ideal for retrofits and can be relocated at will, helping facilities respond to the ever-changing coronavirus situation. Sensors like these will never require maintenance. Once set up they will work endlessly without the need to change the battery.

These solutions deliver a real return on investment. Savings will most likely be even better in the new, socially distanced, workplace.

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