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Office Tracking Devices: Enhanced User Experience Or Big Brother Watching?

What does it take to convince a corporate executive to surrender his or her corner office with a view?

Evidence backed by data to support the argument that flexible and collaborative workspace is more efficient than traditionally closed offices. 

To design office spaces centered around an enjoyable work environment, having a deep understanding of how the staff makes use of that space is crucial. Using technology to monitor employees’ movements throughout the day is a popular way for employers to gain that understanding, though not everyone loves the idea of being watched at the office.

What happens when data trackers are so advanced that employees’ every move is being monitored, analyzed — and sometimes even smelled? Yes, some systems can even detect when an employee has passed gas.


When Siemens, a global industrial manufacturing powerhouse with 372,000 employees in 190 countries, began implementing its New Way of Working (NewWow) in 2011, Siemens Real Estate Head of Region Americas Michael Kruklinski said executives at certain locations were required to part with their private offices — including him. No more signs boasting three letters on office doors.

Siemens has completed a handful of trial-and-error experiments surrounding shared office space best practices over the years. This year, the company took its research a step further by launching a pilot program to implement sensor technology. Using sensor testing in one of its offices, Siemens was able to see exactly how employees utilize their flex office space.

The company recently received its initial data following the first three months of testing. The data revealed that the company's space overall was being underutilized.

The data will allow Siemens to fine-tune the employee experience by informing the company about the types of chairs people prefer, the types of desks — height-adjustable or not — in which employees are more productive and the need for larger conference room sizes, private rooms and noise-canceling phone booths.

“If we only have two people sitting in meeting rooms that are designed for 10, that means we need more smaller meeting rooms,” Kruklinski said.

“Those kinds of things can help us with design changes in an environment that we’re in, and it will help us also in the future design space that is even better, because now it’s data-driven and not anecdotal.”

The Siemens office in Iselin, N.J., uses the NewWow model, which focuses on enhancing the user experience.

Before implementing sensors, Siemens would conduct spot checks periodically in an effort to quantify the usability of a space. Several times throughout the course of a month, Kruklinski said company representatives would notate the number of occupied and empty chairs. They would then sit down with a manager to review the data and ask why a particular space wasn’t being utilized or could be used more efficiently.

Managers would always offer explanations for the empty seats, according to Kruklinski, attributing the lack of employee presence in the office to slow days, rainy days or vacation days. “They would always give these excuses,” Kruklinski said.

The company wanted more hard data as a way to ultimately understand the true occupancy of a physical space. This knowledge would be a good cost-saving measure, Kruklinski said. Instead of reserving desk or office space for each person, Siemens has experimented with ratios of 1.3 or 1.5 people per desk; and with salespeople spending a majority of their time in the field, Kruklinski said three people per desk may even be appropriate in some cases.

“When you start to look around, people are on vacation, people are traveling, people are in meetings — you have a lot of wasted space really that you don’t need anymore because people are not really in the office; they’re doing other things.”

Big Brother Or A Safety Feature?

Many employees might argue that having a manager watch their every move by using sensors at work is stress-inducing and invasive. 

With sensor technology, however, individual employees are never tracked, Kruklinski said. Instead, the sensors simply inform the system of the number of people in any shared space.

This doubles as security: In case of an evacuation, Kruklinski said the information could assist emergency workers trying to account for every employee.

Siemens isn’t the first to hear Big Brother references and receive pushback regarding office tracking technology. Employees at both Barclays and the Daily Telegraph also pushed back against occupancy-measuring sensor technology when it was installed at their offices.

“A lot of people are concerned that Big Brother is watching, but that’s not the intent here,” Kruklinski said.

Managers are not breathing down employees’ necks about spending too much time at the water cooler, he said; rather, it is about improving the user experience.

Siemens plans to add the sensors to some of its offices in other markets and all of its new sites.

An Enhanced User Experience

Employees can find out if these snacks are available in the break room at Futurice by checking this camera feed.

When an intense foosball match goes down in a Berlin office break room at digital services company Futurice, game highlights can be sent to co-workers in Helsinki, Finland. In return, Helsinki employees can share a reel from their game of choice: billiards.

When Futurice, which employs 450 in England, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Germany, decided to examine how user experiences can improve with technology in the workplace, it began by experimenting on itself.

The company also created a space for employees to share food, high-tech style: a camera is pointed at a bowl of food, a flip of a switch sends the message “food is available” and then the picture updates every five minutes until someone flips the switch off when the food is gone.

An opt-in program allows employees to see where their colleagues are in a building at any given time, using a phone app that shows employees’ initials on a map. They have even made their open-source tool available to interested parties for free.

“It’s kinda creepy, but it’s cool because you’re not on the map if you didn’t choose to be on the map,” Futurice Director of Wizardry and Development Paul Houghton said (yes, that is his real title). “I can just turn it off if I don’t want it.”

Beacons with buttons, cameras and air quality sensors communicate with employees’ phones. Sensors can track the temperature of a room for those who prefer a warmer or cooler space. Pollen count can be detected and filtered out. A noise map measures the volume of ambient noise in the room.

With that much technology, fears about being watched are bound to creep in. Houghton was careful to proactively consider and solve any potential security concerns — such as how to keep someone from accessing the system to see if a woman is in the office working late alone. The app only works using office WiFi, providing that information only to someone already at the office.

Ultimately, the system is not designed as a management tool but as a way for employees to have awareness and control over their own environment, Houghton said.

“The office of the future really should be for the people, and not as a centralized management tool. The entire focus is really on the user experience,” Houghton said.

Futurice's toilet sensor rendering

When contemplating office design in Helsinki, Berlin, London or other cities, employers must take into account that employee preferences and work styles vary from office to office, city to city and nation to nation.

In Helsinki, for example, one office concern was finding an available restroom. The addition of motion sensors in the bathroom show employees before they leave their desk which restrooms are occupied. The restrooms themselves provided a point of contention: flatulence control. Houghton came up with an idea to create a sensor that could monitor and correct gases typically associated with bathroom smells.

While attempting to install this technology in the ladies room one time, Houghton said he was practically physically thrown out of the restroom when he tried to go there with his gas-monitoring sensors. The experience was a good lesson to learn, Houghton said, adding that communication with users is an absolute necessity when it comes to tracking someone’s location.

“It may be that your intentions are perfectly honest and there’s nothing else going on, but how people understand that requires much more communication than you might anticipate if you’re going to have location technology," he said. 

CORRECTION, JUNE 13, 11:15 A.M. ET: A previous version of this story did not clearly explain the type of sensors Siemens used to collect data nor did it properly reflect that not all Siemens employees were required to give up their private offices. The story has been updated.