Going back to office could get safer with these smart sensors

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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PointGrab Image
PointGrab helps to monitor social distancing in the workspace

While most organizations encourage their employees to work remotely to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, progress in the development of vaccinations and treatments approved by the authorities raises questions about when, whether and how employees can return to office life safely.

One company is designing technologies that can eliminate some of the basic issues stopping workers from returning to workplaces, which is physically distancing themselves from others.

PointGrab, an Israel-based company, has been hard at work developing a prototype sensor even before the pandemic to help workspace managers optimize how employees use office space.

PointGrab Sensor Image
The sensors help to optimize how employees use office space.

The sensors can monitor the exact number and location of people in buildings, including offices, hotels and restaurants and is about the size of a smoke alarm.

Deloitte, which installed the device last year at its flagship London office, was one of the company’s first customers. To reveal the availability of desks and shared areas in real time, PointGrab’s sensors are linked to screens in the building. Doron Shachar, CEO of PointGrab, says that it was one of a variety of innovations that helped Deloitte fit 30% more employees into 3% less space.

Social distancing

The system has now been adapted by PointGrab so that sensors can also detect social distancing by keeping track of how far apart individuals are and whether they are moving around a building in one direction.

For instance, workspace managers can set up alerts for when two people are closer than two meters for more than 30 seconds. “An organization will choose what to do with that alert,” Mr. Shachar says.

The sensors have been included in the “six feet office” model developed by Cushman & Wakefield, a US-based real estate services firm, to encourage employees to practice social distancing. Currently, the technology being used for this purpose at a university in the Netherlands and an innovation center in Belgium.

Other companies have developed various approaches to tackle the issue. For example, US tech company Camio uses image-detecting software that works with surveillance cameras to monitor how close employees are to each other and whether they are wearing a mask.

Although the concept of social distancing is recent, PointGrab has deployed more than 10,000 workspace optimization sensors, including at Coca-Cola, Facebook and Dell offices.

Privacy concerns

Employees may not like the idea of being tracked, but PointGrab says there are no images captured or features recorded. Rather, each person is depicted on a dashboard as an anonymous dot.

“The sensor does not violate people’s privacy,” Mr. Shachar says. “This is extremely important in the workspace.”

For several of the facilities management services and software vendors that PointGrab partners with, privacy is a crucial concern. Spacewell, a building management software provider, chose to integrate PointGrab’s technology into its smart building platform mainly because of its ability to anonymize data.

“We do a lot of business with health care companies and financial service providers, so it’s very important to make sure that you don’t have any images or any data leaving the device,” Spacewell managing director Adrian Weygandt says.

While smart sensors alone may not be enough to get workers back to the office, Mr. Shachar believes they could help companies take the first step.

“What you need in order to actually comply with social distancing rules is exactly what we provide,” says Mr. Shachar. “That is understanding, in real time, where people are located.”