If you ask Dan Ryan, cofounder and CEO of workplace sensor company VergeSense, workplace staples like assigned desks have gone the way of fax machines and Rolodexes—he’s been betting on it, even before the pandemic forced offices around the world to shutter last year.
After learning about the limited methods for collecting data on people’s interactions and movements in buildings like offices, Ryan and CTO Kelby Green launched VergeSense in 2017. Their AI-powered sensors track employees on the job, allowing employer customers including Shell and Cisco to see, in real-time, who is in an office, what areas are in use and whether occupancy capacities have been reached. Initially, the pair created their technology to help companies make smarter, data-based real estate decisions, but today, the data will be especially essential as employees cautiously return to their offices, Ryan says.
“A lot of companies are now completely reimagining how they think about their physical workplace strategy,” he says. “The office needs to become much more adaptable, much more flexible.”
With $22 million in funding from investors including Tola Capital and Allegion Ventures, San Francisco-based VergeSense tracks more than 40 million square feet of office space. Though much of this space has been vacant for the past year, Ryan says many of his customers are currently planning their returns and investing in technology to facilitate the transition.
For example, he says, some companies are considering eliminating assigned desks, embracing instead hot-desk systems, where multiple employees use a single, physical workstation on a rotating basis. Employees whose companies use VergeSense can use its platform to reserve available desks and conference rooms.
“The sensor can interpret the physical environment in the same way that a human would,” Ryan says. “The sensor can detect whether or not there’s stuff on a desk or within a conference room, like a jacket, backpack, purse, etc., and then actually serve up that data into our platform so that people have a much more accurate depiction of whether the space is occupied or not.”
Not only can this promote social distancing, but it can help with sanitation, he says. Offices are typically cleaned floor-by-floor, according to a schedule. With VergeSense data, facility maintenance workers can pinpoint high-use spaces for cleaning.
Will tools like VergeSense make employees fearful of being tracked? Amy C. Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, says it depends on how well companies communicate the tool’s purpose to employees. “If people see the tool in some way as threatening or checking up on them, they will be less enthusiastic,” she says. “If they see it as reassuring and helping them be confident the space is physically safe, then they will be appreciative.”
Ryan says VergeSense was designed with privacy in mind, as it provides companies with an anonymized dataset. Its sensor processes ultra-low resolution imagery, so it’s impossible for its sensors to capture personally identifiable information, according to the company.
In Calgary, Canada, modular interiors company DIRTT is also helping organizations navigate the return to offices. Its walls and doors can be created in a matter of weeks and easily moved and reconfigured based on companies’ changing needs. CEO Kevin O’Meara says his clients are already using these solutions to prepare their offices for the post-pandemic workplace.
Before the health crisis, for example, most employees did individual work in open floor plans and teamwork in conference rooms. Now, he says employers want to transform enclosed areas into individual offices and open ones into collaborative spaces, so as to encourage social distancing.
Will these solutions still be necessary by the time it’s safe to go back to the office? O’Meara thinks so.
“[One] part is everybody’s psychology. The public health authorities can swear it’s perfectly safe to go back to the office as it was. But people have memories, and they will be very, very skittish,” he says. “Design the best space for you as you understand it and be prepared to be flexible and listen to your people.”
Even as companies invest in technology to return to physical offices, Steve Koenig, senior analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities America, predicts they’ll increase spending on innovations that make hybrid work models possible. He points to workflow software ServiceNow and customer relationship management platform Pegasystems as examples of companies that could become as commonplace in the future of work as Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams became this past year.
“When the pandemic hit, companies had to focus on Band-Aids first. They had to provision remote workers with VPN and devices. They were very much Band-Aid solutions,” Koenig says. “Now, enterprises that are more forward thinking will be adopting these technologies to give them more flexibility, which will help them attract and retain talent.”