The Tampa office of Gresham Smith, an architecture, engineering, and design firm.
“Zombie offices” have proliferated in the US as employees opt for fully remote or hybrid work.
With fewer in-person workers, companies want to understand and optimize the use of their offices.
Some are using tech that analyzes indoor activities and provides data on workplace behaviors.
This article is part of “Build IT,” a series about digital tech and innovation trends that are disrupting industries.
James Wu was bewildered when someone gave him a paper map of The Metropolitan Museum of Art — it was 2014, after all.
“You’re in an iconic, world-class city. You go into one of its most iconic, world-class buildings,” he said, “And suddenly you’re back 10, 15 years.”
A trained software engineer, Wu couldn’t believe that technology like GPS didn’t exist for indoor spaces. Everyone used it for transit directions and driving routes. He wondered: “Why is this problem not solved indoors?”
Wu’s experience at The Met helped spark his interest in “indoorology,” the study of indoor-space utilization and interaction, and inspired him to launch InnerSpace, a company that aims to help businesses understand workplace behaviors by mapping out employee activity in an office.
James Wu, the cofounder and CEO of InnerSpace.
Jessica Blaine Smith
The company uses WiFi access points — which use existing WiFi infrastructure as signals to track movement — and WiFi-enabled devices like smartphones and laptops to gather space-utilization data, such as how many people are in a space, the percentage of time a space is used, and the busiest times of the day in each location.
Wu knew he had something special. But he had no idea that “hybrid work” would become ubiquitous nearly 10 years later and make InnerSpace a helpful tool for understanding new trends in shared workspaces. One of these trends is the emergence of emptier offices — also known as “zombie offices.”
Zombie offices and changing work norms
A Gallup study published in January found that organizations are long-term planning for a workforce comprising 22% fully remote workers, 23% on-site workers, and 56% hybrid workers. While that’s great news for employees, the work-culture shift has left the real-estate industry in a precarious state.
Zombie offices have popped up around the country because there aren’t offices filled with people five days a week anymore. But Sharad Rastogi, the CEO of Work Dynamics Technology at the global commercial real-estate company JLL, isn’t worried.
Rastogi said his San Francisco colleagues are “lagging” in coming back to the office, but he thinks that it’s just an evolution in real estate, not doomsday. “Is it ever going to be five days in the office, nine to five?” Rastogi said. “I don’t think so.”
But he believes that commercial real estate’s investment in technology will move offices and commercial real estate into the future. The data backs up his optimism: In 2022, a survey from JLL, whose client roster includes Aldi, Bay Area Rapid Transit, and Boston Consulting Group, found that 56% of companies plan to invest in environment and occupancy sensors in the next three years.
Sharad Rastogi, the CEO of Work Dynamics Technology at JLL.
The advent of generative AI is also providing insights from space-utilization data to tenants, clients, and agents. JLL is already seeing this with a GPT model it created. The technology uses JLL’s building data to improve building efficiencies, determine sustainability risks, and help formulate space-utilization data for clients.
Zombie offices and the shift to hybrid work have pushed companies to figure out the next best move to maximize office space using real-time data, not guesswork.
Wu summed up their issue: “There’s that real business pressure to try and get value out of your real estate while supporting the productivity of your team. You don’t want to just crush your team productivity, because that’s what’s important.”
Using emerging tech to understand and optimize workspaces
What makes InnerSpace unique is that it doesn’t require any hardware installation. The company’s clients, which include several Fortune 500 companies, use their already-installed WiFi network to get insights into their space. This has helped some businesses figure out how to maximize their space for employee productivity overall but also for specific teams’ productivity.
For instance, InnerSpace uses WiFi access points to discover how much time a team spends in meeting rooms, in another work area, and at their desks. If the access points detect that a team spends more time in meetings or in other collaborative work areas — and are often away from their desks — then a company knows that it can cut down on unnecessary desk space or improve other areas of an office.
Other tech used for space measurement are sensors and beacons, which have purchasing and installation costs. They’re small pieces of hardware set up around the office to gather data about how many people come in and how long they stay, among other insights.
Companies in the sensor business argue that WiFi-driven analysis can’t provide true accuracy. One of these is VergeSense, a sensor company for space utilization. Its website claims its product is “twice as accurate” as WiFi-powered solutions on the market, because its hardware sensors, called “optical sensors,” take low-resolution photos of a space that uses AI to capture data showing when and where people are in the office.
VergeSense’s optical sensors are attached to the ceiling in a work space.
These sensors can even detect “passive occupancy” — a term for when people temporarily leave a space with the intention of coming back, like when an employee goes to the bathroom, grabs coffee, or goes to a meeting before returning to their desk.
This prevents “double counting,” or registering an already-existing person as a new one after they’ve left a room and returned. VergeSense’s website claims that it’s the “only optical sensor technology on the market that can measure passive occupancy, which constitutes 50% of space use.”
JLL has a partnership with VergeSense to help its massive portfolio of clients. Rastogi said via email that the hardware installation can be tricky, but the data from sensors is more easily available and more accurate than WiFi.
Seven years ago, WiFi’s capabilities were not strong enough to create accurate measures for office spaces, Wu agreed, but he believes WiFi works better than sensors now.
Wu said that sensors are excellent ways to figure out how many people are in an office, a huge need during the social-distancing days of the pandemic. They’re also good for detecting which areas are being used in general. But businesses now want “more nuanced behavior,” like where specific teams spend most of their time, which InnerSpace can measure.
InnerSpace can show companies how many people moved from one office area to another.
Space analysis matters most when people are present
Tech alone can’t solve the proliferation of zombie offices. Gaining insights about space utilization is only half the battle. With hybrid work, employers need to make coming into the office worth it for employees.
Jack Weber, the senior vice president and regional design leader at the architecture, engineering, and design firm Gresham Smith said the goal is to “make those who are staying at home feel a sense of FOMO,” or a fear of missing out.
Camaraderie, collaboration, and connection are key to that, Weber explained. Before he begins to design a new building for a company, he asks the senior executives: “What behavior do you want to encourage in this space?” He then builds around that.
Jack Weber, the senior vice president and regional design leader at Gresham Smith.
Weber sometimes uses sensors to help him figure out effective office designs. For example, he and his team use VergeSense sensors to discern which areas of an office are being used most often by employees, because companies are now putting more people into smaller spaces. Gresham Smith needs to find a solution to maximize those spaces.
“We need to make sure that every square inch is performing well,” Weber said.
For example, Weber is creating conference rooms that make meetings between in-person and remote employees more up-close and personal. Usually, a conference room has one camera at the front that gives remote employees a distant view of everyone’s faces, even though everyone in the office can see the square of the remote employees’ faces.
In smaller meeting rooms, Weber is forgoing putting in one camera to encourage all in-person employees to log into the meeting so that every employee’s face is shown. In larger rooms, he’s installing cameras that can zoom in and out on faces to make the meeting more personal.
“It’s more about training people to interact more often and act differently when you’re remote,” Weber said. “If you don’t talk regularly, then you’re going to be disconnected.”
The future of space-measurement tech and hybrid work
Clients keep asking Weber the same question during this transitional moment in work culture: What does the perfect office for hybrid work look like?
“There’s no formula, there’s no one-size-fits-all,” Weber said.
Wu and Ragosti expressed the same sentiment, acknowledging that working in a physical office doesn’t offer the same benefits as working remotely. “We’re competing with people’s couch,” Wu said.
But, Wu added, InnerSpace’s next step will be to help companies use the data it provides to create a strategy for getting people back into the office — without a mandate.