Are Occupancy Sensors Invading Our Privacy? The Answers When Employees Push Back

Occupancy sensors help office decision makers decide how to best utilize their workspaces, but some employees fear this technology impinges upon their privacy. As seen in the United Kingdom, the Daily Telegraph’s employees created an uproar that led to removal twenty-four hours after installation. Barclay’s experienced some similar pushback. When deploying occupancy sensors, it's important to keep employees informed about what the sensors can and can't do.

How Occupancy Sensors Work

Different occupancy sensors are available on the market. Typical sensors use infrared, ultrasonic waves, microwave, or something else, like Bluetooth to ping off smartphones. Passive infrared (PIR) sensors are very common in switches. These sensors monitor occupancy by detecting heat signatures. Ultrasonic occupancy sensors use the Doppler effect to detect movement in a space with many obstacles. Dual-tech sensors combine infrared with ultrasonic to turn on lights, HVAC, and other systems on and off.

While sensor controlling building hardware systems is more commonplace today, and rarely receives pushback, building owners and tenants are now applying occupancy sensing technology to track space use. The data provides insights into a space’s occupancy rate, its traffic flow, and timing, and more. The analytics can drill down to which specific desks are used most frequently in a flexible office arrangement. These sensors use infrared, ultrasonic, camera monitoring or a combination to analyze space use.

What Occupancy Sensors Can’t Do

Occupancy sensors can not monitor individual productivity. While they can sense a table or desk was occupied for an hour, they don’t reveal what that person worked on during that hour.

Smart sensing technology can identify patterns in movement around a space, but it does not track individuals around a space. The data does not reveal employee John arrived at the office at 8:32 am, spent 30 minutes near the coffee maker, or leaves his desk 10 minutes of every hour.  

Communicating with Employees

A professional colleague mentioned he started hearing a hissing noise in his office space. After his co-worker mentioned hearing the noise, he let his boss know about the noise. To his surprise, it turned out the office had installed a white noise system. Instead of a malfunctioning HVAC system, the office was attempting to boost productivity!

The take back is clear: it’s vital to communicate to employees when implementing a new tech solution. Be clear about the installation objectives, when employees can expect installation and use, and where they can provide feedback. Share the data outcomes with employees as evidence the system is being used as promised.

Keeping employees advised about new technology impacting their workplace builds trust in management. Especially with occupancy sensors, when fears of “big brother is watching” create pushback, communication and understanding is key to a successful implementation.

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