Understanding Workplace Usage Without Compromising Employee Privacy

Leona Leslie
VP Marketing

Collecting data about how we use offices gives employers a starting point for understanding how to make the most of space and resources. With the average desk costing $7,700 annually and up to 67% of office space unoccupied at any given time during a typical work week, companies are asking how they can use their space better. However, when data is linked to employee movement, it prompts a discussion about the right to privacy in the workplace. Here, we discuss the role of sensor technology in helping businesses reduce costs, operate more sustainably, and streamline processes without compromising the privacy of their teams.

As companies adopt more hybrid working models and the needs of the workplace change, the use of technology to understand workplace occupancy is increasing. Disruptive Technologies desk occupancy sensors, mounted on the underside of desks, use temperature data to determine if someone is sitting there. Through machine learning, we can form conclusions about occupancy. At the same time, we use motion sensors to detect the presence of people in a meeting room or zoned area. The sensors transmit data to a cloud-based application, which processes the information to offer insights into workspace usage patterns, helping organizations make informed decisions about office layout, energy consumption, and resource allocation.

How Is Occupancy Data Used?

Let's start by stating that the purpose of occupancy sensors is not to track people. They collect data to create an aggregated picture, identifying patterns without identifying specific employees. The goal is to understand the needs of a workplace and not to track where employees are.

If a company learns that there is a part of the office that no one uses, it can make a plan to use the space better. Creating more meeting rooms, recreation areas, or co-working zones are all ways of repurposing a space to bring more value to an organization. Systems can be implemented to ensure that heating, cooling, and lighting systems are used as needed, reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions. Basing decisions on actual usage data is far better than observing or relying on employees to state what they need: people speak with actions much more clearly than words.

Balancing Privacy and Workplace Optimization

Because technology misuse does happen, employees can be suspicious of new technologies brought into their workplace to collect data. Cameras and microphones, email monitoring, and even subdermal identification devices are all real examples of how companies might be violating the rights of their workers. We saw an increase in productivity monitoring software during the COVID-19 pandemic that went as far as to monitor mouse activity or keystrokes, breaking labor laws and triggering a backlash from employees. When implementing space occupancy technology, no matter how unintrusive, it is essential to reassure employees about the purpose of the data collection. Companies should be transparent about how data will be gathered and stored; what safeguards are in place to keep it anonymous; and how it will be used to improve the work environment.

Keeping Occupancy Data Private

When considering employee privacy, we need to take into account the broader usage of technology in the workplace. Employees already interact with email servers, meeting registration systems, and shared documents, generating a trail of information. These collaboration tools can, in principle, be misused to track employee activity. However, that is not why companies invest in them; the intention is to aid collaboration, increase productivity, and support remote work. While cameras, log-ins, and badge ID data all identify an individual, the data from Disruptive Technologies space occupancy sensors is anonymous. At no stage is data captured that can locate specific employees, making it one of the most private ways of understanding office occupancy and addressing one of the most common concerns surrounding workplace studies. 

In fact, our space occupancy sensors are among the least intrusive technologies available for understanding occupancy. Most other comparable systems use cameras, which use photographic data to understand space usage. Unlike these camera-based technologies, which have the potential to capture and store images that can, in theory, be used to identify specific individuals, our approach prioritizes employee privacy while still providing valuable insights into workplace occupancy patterns. The Disruptive Technologies sensors were designed with privacy in mind, so the data they capture is anonymous and cannot easily be attributed to specific employees. 

In theory, an employer could use metadata to link our sensors to an individual desk belonging to an employee and make assumptions about how often that person was there. However, this is not the intended use of the sensors and there is no compelling reason to do so. The goal is to determine the extent to which desks and spaces are used, allowing for better decision-making regarding workspace optimization. Companies should collect only the data for that purpose and strictly avoid connecting personal information or data unrelated to workspace usage.

Private and Secure

Although data privacy and security are separate topics, they are often raised in the same discussion. Robust data security measures - to encrypt data and ensure it is tamper-proof - not only safeguard information but also contribute to preserving data privacy. Disruptive Technologies is committed to both aspects, ensuring that data is secure and private, providing organizations with the confidence to use our technology for informed decision-making without compromising employee trust.

Adapting to the Modern Workplace

Efficiency in the modern workplace demands a willingness to adapt to change. Companies need to ensure they are using space and resources wisely. The data from desk occupancy sensors enables them to meet the needs of their evolving work culture and the expectations of employees in a more resource-efficient way.

The debate about data privacy in the workplace will continue. Still, at Disruptive Technologies, we can unequivocally declare that the data we provide is anonymous and respectful of each individual’s privacy. We want to underline the importance of using sensor data as intended and educating employees about what challenges the business seeks to solve: how this data helps the company make better decisions, create a better working environment for staff, and build a more sustainable platform for growth.

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