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How Advanced Sensor Technology is Radically Changing Workplaces

SafetyCulture News | By | 10 Dec 2018 | 4 minute read

advanced sensor technology

Alarm bells rang across Britain when news broke that companies were making increasing inroads into microchipping employees.

Swedish technology company Biohax told The Telegraph it was in talks with several UK legal and financial companies about implanting staff. It seems like something from science-fiction, but implanting employees with a chip about the size of a grain of rice has multiple benefits, the company claims.

As well as tightening security in instances such as access to sensitive documents, microchips can also improves productivity by boosting efficiencies across activities like entering the building, using the printer and buying canteen food—all of which can be done with the swipe of a hand.

Elsewhere, British company BioTeq is also pushing microchips as a replacement for a work ID pass.

Britain’s national union organisation, the Trades Union Congress, warned that legislation needs to keep across the protection of workers’ privacy and advances in surveillance.

“We know workers are already concerned that some employers are using tech to control and micromanage, whittling away their staff’s right to privacy,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

“Microchipping would give bosses even more power and control over their workers. There are obvious risks involved, and employers must not brush them aside, or pressure staff into being chipped.”

Last year, a US chief executive made headlines by having himself and 50 employees—voluntarily, of course—microchipped. Todd Westby, the boss of self-service vending machine company Three Square Market, said the chip allowed staff to enter the building, buy snacks and log onto computers, all by swiping a sensor with their hands.

A year on, Three Square Market is taking a massive leap forward with the technology and now developing possibilities including GPS tracking for uses such as helping Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, as well as monitoring vital signs and other medical purposes.

‘Accelerated delivery’

Medical use aside, the increasing discussion around workplace technology and sensors – microchipped-triggered or otherwise – is raising questions about privacy, monitoring and surveillance. At the same time, the increasing benefits as the technology develops include efficiencies in productivity, wellbeing and even environmentally in the workplace.

Analyst firm Gartner has pointed to the intersection of physical and digital spaces as one of its technology trends for 2019, where “humans and technology-enabled systems interact in increasingly open, connected, co-ordinated and intelligent ecosystems”.

Gartner vice-president David Cearley said applications were predicted to ramp up. “This trend has been coalescing for some time around elements such as smart cities, digital workplaces, smart homes and connected factories,” he said.

“We believe the market is entering a period of accelerated delivery of robust smart spaces with technology becoming an integral part of our daily lives, whether as employees, customers, consumers, community members or citizens.”

Existing moves into sensors and digital monitoring so far have been innovative, if headline-grabbing.

In 2004, Heathrow Airport introduced a system of sensors that count the number of people going into its toilets, alerting cleaners for a refresh every time numbers reach a certain amount.

But a move by bosses at British broadsheet newspaper the Daily Telegraph wasn’t quite so successful. In 2016, the company installed heat and motion sensors to monitor whether staff were at their desks, collating around-the-clock analytics about heating, lighting and cooling to assess improvements in energy efficiency. There was an immediate outcry, with staff tagging it as surveillance, and they were removed after a day.

Sensors and the realm of the Internet of Things may well become more prevalent—if companies can get the PR spin right. Environmental assessments such as temperature and noise levels have the possibility to contribute positively to employee wellbeing.

There is much to be said for making improvements in the workplace. About one in five UK workers experience more than two hours of unproductive work each week due to poor work environments due to factors such as noisy offices or a lack of natural light, according to facilities management company Mace Macro.

Elsewhere, Australian workplace consultants Hubb says that sensors could improve use of office space, through assessing how much space is unused in an average day and produce cost-saving benefits in space reduction.

Taking it to the Edge

A case study for the future of sensor technology is the revolutionary Edge building in Amsterdam, Deloitte’s Netherlands HQ, which opened in 2014. The award-winning property has been tagged the smartest building in the world, as well as the most environmentally sustainable (it is the highest-ever rated property by monitor organisation BREEAM).

The Edge is a 15-storey, 40,000 sqm building that uses 28,000 sensors to monitor motion, light, temperature and other factors. Its environmental benefits include solar panels which power everything including all air-conditioning and employees’ smartphones, laptops electric cars. As well as using 70 per cent less energy than a standard building, the solar panels mean it actually produces more power than it consumes.

For employees, the sensors work in conjunction with an app for a daily tailored experience. On arrival, the building identifies employees’ cars as they arrive at the car park and directs them to a parking spot. It then guides staff to a hot-desking workspace or meeting room, according to their schedule, adjusting any desk space to their preferred lighting and temperature. It also remembers their preferred beverage at coffee machines and can track their gym progress, as well as multiple other innovations.

Deloitte says no information is collated that covers staff whereabouts, missed meetings or anything else that might compromise privacy.

“Our aim was to make The Edge the best place to work,” says Erik Ubels, director of IT & Workplace Services, Deloitte Netherlands. “Our meeting areas are filling up because every client and employee wants to experience this building. It’s not too small yet, but the economy is growing and the building is getting crowded. It’s possible we made it too popular.”

The winning formula appears to have paid off. In January, the head of the architects firm OVG, Coen van Oostrom, announced the launch of EDGE Technologies for further development. The company said it is reinventing the modern workplace with “a product that meticulously captures and aggregates data across its properties in order to optimise, measure and inform both the user experience and the building’s environmental performance”.

Since then it has announced an Edge property in Berlin, scheduled to open in 2020, and a 1 billion euro ($AU1.6 billion) strategic partnership deal with an investment company.

Right now, it’s an era of testing the waters when it comes to widespread sensor use in the workplace—but it appears advances, done right, are succeeding in a big way.

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