AI sensor system could help improve workplace concentration

An AI-enabled sensor system for measuring staff comfort and workplace concentration could help employers get the best out of flexible office spaces.  

Open plan, hot desk offices have become increasingly popular in recent years.

But whilst they may represent an efficient use of space and be useful for encouraging collaboration and teamwork, they can be noisy, distracting and uncomfortable places to work.

In an effort to help employers understand how to get the best out of staff working in such an environment, computer scientists from RMIT University in Australia and engineers from Arup have developed an AI-enabled sensor system for measuring staff comfort and concentration.

workplace concentration
Arup’s activity based working space in Melbourne, Australia, where the system was trialled. Image: Arup

For the project the RMIT team worked with psychologists to identify several key variables for workplace concentration and comfort levels in work environments. These included noise levels, indoor temperature and air quality, humidity, air pressure, and even electromagnetic fields.

The group then joined forces with engineering consultancy Arup to develop a sensor-based system for measuring these variables and combining that information with survey data to train algorithms that could identify patterns in perceived concentration and activity.

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The system was trialled at two of Arup’s offices over a period four weeks and provided a number of useful insights into how flexible working spaces could be optimised.

Perhaps unsurprisingly one observation gleaned from the study was that many people have a favourite spot and found concentrating more difficult if they weren’t able to sit there. The study also found that workers were more sensitive to the office temperature not being exactly right if they missed out on their favourite seat.

Indeed, regardless of where they sat, office temperature was a major factor in how comfortable and focused people were.

Most found temperatures below 22.5C too cold to fully concentrate and, as the day progressed, it was observed that people became increasingly sensitive to this.

The number of formal and informal meetings was also shown to have a large impact on perceived concentration, with those who had five formal meetings in a day reporting lower concentration levels compared with those who had fewer.

The impact of the kind of informal meetings encouraged by flexible working spaces was also studied and found to be a source of distraction for a number of those involved.

High CO2 levels, due to high occupant densities, were also a barrier in people’s ability to concentrate. “The results for CO2 and thermal comfort underline just how important a high-quality heating, cooling and ventilation system is in office design, as well as indoor plants to reduce CO2,” said the lead researcher on the project Dr Mohammad Saiedur Rahaman.

Rahaman said that he ultimately envisages the system being used to help optimise workplace design and layout, and even to suggest to people when to take breaks, and what zone might suit them best.

Arup engineer and project partner, Shaw Kudo, said beyond the useful insights on their own office, they also saw it as an opportunity to help the wider property industry. “Modern offices, new and existing, are likely to undergo change and potentially redesign workplaces post COVID-19,” he said. “The valuable findings from this work can feed into future designs and allow Arup to better service our clients as they plan their future workplace – whether this is a new-build, or a return to the office after COVID-19.’”

The study ‘An Ambient-Physical System to Infer Concentration in Open-plan Workplace‘ is published in the IEEE Internet of Things Journal.