AI Sensors Can Improve Workplace Performance

Hello Engineering Exchange! My name is Ryan and I am the Founder of Mechanical Engineering HQ. I am writing here today to share an interesting development in AI (Artificial Technology) in modern offices. Some scientists believe that AI sensors can improve workplace performance. Read on to see if they can achieve this feat!

Offices that are open plan, “hot desking” as it is referred to, are becoming more and more popular in the modern world. These are known to be an efficient use of space and great for teamwork and collaboration on projects, but they also have their cons; distractions, noise and being uncomfortable.

Computer scientists from RMIT University in Australia and Arup engineers have noticed these problems, and in an effort to help employers get the best out of staff they have developed an AI-enables sensor system for measuring staff concentration and comfort.

American workers are among the most stressed in the world, going by Gallup’s recent data which found that more than half of the American population - a figure 20 percent higher than the global average of 35 percent - experience stress during the day on most days. Also, according to Wrike’s US Stress Statistics, more than 94 percent of Americans experience workplace stress.

The more concerning issue with these alarming statistics is the pernicious effects stress creates - for employees and business owners. Stress causes more than one million workers to be absent from work every day and causes business owners to lose nearly $300 million annually. Furthermore, stress is associated with close to 120,000 deaths and a $190 billion loss in medical costs every year.

The key variables that were identified by the RMIT team, who were working with psychologists, included; indoor temperature, air quality, noise levels and even electrically engineered electromagnetic fields.This group then joined up with Arup engineering force to create a sensor based system for measuring these variables and using data to train algorithms to detect patterns in perceived concentration and activity.

More Efficient All-Round

Today, installing sensors that automate temperature and lighting is a given for modern offices. Sensors help optimize lighting usage by turning systems on and off as employees enter and leave spaces, meaning energy is not wasted on lighting unused areas. The same goes for Heating, Ventilation and Cooling (HVAC) systems - whether it’s summertime or the dead of winter, moderating temperatures through an automated, sensor-based system prevents high energy bills.

The aim of this technology is to better understand how employees’ performance and decision-making skills change in various situations at work. This is done through unique sensor-based markers that measure employee characteristics, such as personality and ability. Basically, the project will use the high-frequency raw data collected from sensors - for example GPS and accelerometers - and sensors that measure respiration and heart rate, to create biomarkers. These biomarkers will relate to tasks - like typing - as well as stress, activity, alertness and more.

There are many benefits of installing workplace sensors to increase the efficiency of a facility's operations. To start, sensors can be used to track location data of employees, including how many employees occupy a space at any given time (which is particularly valuable for companies that employ hot desking). Occupancy data can also be used to establish an appropriate cleaning schedule that is suited to actual office conditions and use, rather than on a recurring basis. For systems that require maintenance, sensors can be used to detect inefficiencies as they happen as well as the scale of use, which offers higher cost-advantages than scheduling regular preventive maintenance.

When workers hear automation and artificial intelligence, what readily comes to mind is automating the workplace; but recent studies have revealed that deployed to take over certain office tasks and offer mental health solutions to workers, AI tools may do the opposite, making the workplace more human and keeping work stress at bay.

Trialing the System

Two Arup offices were chosen to trial this new system over a period of four weeks, and this provided a great number of insights into how flexible work spaces can be optimized. One of the more obvious results of this trial was that most of the office workers have a favorite seat/location to use, and if they were unable to use that specific seat they found it hard to concentrate. It also found that the workers were more sensitive to the office temperature if they could not obtain their favorite seat. 

The office temperature was a major factor in how comfortable and focused everybody in the office was, regardless of where they sat. Temperatures below 22.5C were deemed to be too cold to fully concentrate by the staff, and as the day wore on it was observed that the workers became more sensitive to this.

The meetings that are encouraged by “hot desking” were also found to be a distracting factor for a percentage of those taking part in the trial. High Co2 levels, due to high occupant densities, were also a barrier in people’s ability to concentrate. This illustrated just how important HVAC is to an office environment. 

This system can ultimately be used to design workplaces around optimizing the office environment, showing people where best suits them to work, and even encouraging them to take breaks when necessary.

Especially now at this time, during the COVID-19 pandemic, most office space will be changing and evolving. This AI system could help with redesigning workplaces post COVID-19 and the valuable findings from this trial can feed future designs and allow engineers (especially Arup in this case) serve their customers better.

AI will not cost you your job; it will only make you do it more efficiently. AI tools are built with machine learning models that drive them to automate some workplace tasks, identify stress and burnout among workers, and even offer therapeutic services to relieve stress and improve employee mental health. If leveraged effectively, AI will not only prevent and improve workplace stress, but it will also boost employee productivity.

What do you think about this new system for office workplaces? Let me know your thoughts with a comment below!

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