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The Guide to Occupancy Sensors for Your Workplace

December 12th, 2022 | 9 min. read

The Guide to Occupancy Sensors for Your Workplace
VergeSense

VergeSense

VergeSense is the industry leader in providing enterprises with a true understanding of their occupancy and how their offices are actually being used.

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We are more familiar with occupancy sensors than we might realize. Lights that turn on when you walk in the room utilize similar technology, as do paper towel dispensers when they sense your hand waving beneath them. But when we discuss measuring workplace utilization, it can be challenging to understand how a small device installed on the ceiling measures the number of people in a room at any given time.

So, let's look at what occupancy sensors are, how they work, and why you need them.

What are occupancy sensors? 

Occupancy sensors are devices that measure the presence of people and objects in an area. Occupancy sensors are part of a building's Internet of Things (IoT) and feed valuable information to key networks and systems. They can be found attached as a wall mount, hidden in a high bay ceiling, or tucked nonchalantly underneath a desk.

Data from occupancy sensors can be used for a variety of purposes : 

  • to understand employee habits and behavior

  • to detect workspace usage and occupancy

  • to monitor and control air quality, heating, and cooling 

This information in turn helps leadership teams to make building management more efficient and the employee experience more seamless. 

What are the different types of occupancy sensors?

There are many different types of occupancy sensors, including Passive Infrared (PIR), Ultrasonic, Bluetooth Beacons, and Optical sensors. Each utilizes a different kind of technology to make sense of its surroundings.

Passive Infrared (PIR) Occupancy Sensors use infrared light to detect heat from a person walking past. These have a wide field of view and are often ceiling mounted. PIR Occupancy Sensors provide basic data on whether or not a space is vacant. They can also be used to control light and ventilation in an area. 

Ultrasonic Sensors use the doppler effect to measure the length of time it takes high-frequency sound waves to travel between the sensor and an object in the room.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons send out signals to devices nearby. BLE Beacons only work with those who have installed a specific app to ensure privacy for consumers.

Optical Sensors capture low-resolution images of a space. Optical sensors produce highly accurate data that can significantly improve a company's ROI when paired with AI in a spatial intelligence platform. 

How do occupancy sensors work?

Occupancy sensors are a powerful tool in the workplace. And when choosing which sensor to use, you want to ensure that it is efficient, accurate, and protects employee privacy. Let's take a closer look at each type of sensor to see which one might fit your needs.

Passive Infrared (PIR) Occupancy Sensors use infrared light to detect heat emitted from a person walking by. This ceiling-mounted occupancy sensor provides basic information—whether a person is in the area or not—and is unsuitable for getting an accurate headcount. But they work wonders in smaller spaces, such as at a desk, in a conference room, or in a doorway.  

The PIR Desk Sensors are typically placed underneath a desk to track how often it is used. These sensors connect to the WiFi and send real-time information to your business's database. This is great for systems like hot-desking—the PIR Desk Sensors will tell you which desks are occupied and which are vacant. That way, your employees can be confident that reserving a desk at the office will be hassle-free.      

Similarly, Door-counting Sensors are mounted to a door frame. These are best used in rooms with a single entry and exit point and can provide valuable information on how regularly a specific room, such as a conference room, is used. And, impressively, the latest models can track when each person enters and exits the room.

Many companies are using PIR Occupancy Sensors to stay on top of office hygiene. Let's say Bathroom A is closer to workstations while Bathroom B is tucked away in a back corner and rarely visited.

PIR Occupancy Sensors can inform the facilities management team that Bathroom A has been used X number of times and needs to be cleaned. At the same time, it can show that Bathroom B has yet to be used and is still clean. This saves the cleaning crew time and energy and, ultimately, the company money.

Ultrasonic Sensors use the doppler effect to determine whether a space is occupied. The sensor knows how long a sound wave should take to bounce off the room's walls and return to it. If the ultrasonic waves take the total time, the sensor knows no one is in the room. But if the waves return more quickly, the sensor knows they have hit an object present in the room—pretty remarkable technology.

Ultrasonic Sensors tend to be used for security purposes and can also be an alternative to PIR sensors in the workplace.

We are all very familiar with Bluetooth technology, as we send photos via AirDrop and listen to music with wireless headphones. But the technology used in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons has greater energy efficiency than the original Bluetooth technology. That is because BLE Beacons transmit only a tiny amount of data over a short range.

BLE Beacons send a universally unique identifier to nearby devices with a compatible app. These sensors are great for helping companies create effective marketing plans and convert potential clients to active customers. It is important to note that BLE Beacons can only connect to devices that have downloaded a specific app—this ensures that consumer privacy is protected.

Optical Sensors are the most powerful devices for analyzing workplace utilization. By pairing anonymous computer vision technology with artificial intelligence, optical sensors can count the number of people and objects in a space and understand how that space is used. Information gathered from optical sensors provides leadership teams with context—and that is invaluable insight when making significant decisions.

How do optical sensors collect data and understand spaces?

Optical sensors generate low-resolution images of a space directly onto the device. That image is converted by AI technology into 0s and 1s. The image is promptly deleted and never sent elsewhere or stored in a database. Only the 0’s and 1’s are sent to a company’s processing systems.

Let’s say the optical sensors are integrated into your company’s desk booking platform. A zero indicates a desk is vacant, and a one means it is occupied.

Imagine that Derek booked a desk for the day, arrived at the office, dropped his stuff at that desk, and then joined a meeting in a conference room. Other sensors, such as PIR Desk Sensors, would note that Derek is no longer present at the desk and trigger the desk booking platform to mark it as vacant. Therefore, Leya is in for a frustrating surprise when she arrives at the office to find the desk she thought was empty to have Derek’s backpack.

This type of misunderstanding of a space does not happen with optical sensors.

How do optical sensors detect passive occupancy?

Passive occupancy is when a space is actually occupied even though a person is not present (i.e., Derek’s backpack at the desk). By taking low-resolution images of the area and using AI, optical sensors can see the backpack and will register the space as occupied.


A CBRE study found that 50% of spaces are passively occupied. You are therefore missing half the data if your workplace occupancy sensors can’t measure passive occupancy. Gathering a complete picture of how your space is utilized is critical when needing reliable workplace analytics.

How do optical sensors keep information anonymous and protect employee privacy?

Optical sensors use ELS technology, which stands for edge-processing, low-resolution, and secure. IoT edge-processing means the data is used as close to the source as possible rather than transferred to a centralized database or processing system. Images generated by optical sensors are immediately converted to zeros and ones and then promptly deleted. They are never sent, stored, or retrieved. So, if you are wondering if optical sensors will violate your company's privacy policies, the answer is no. 

Further, images are incredibly low-resolution. Other than the presence of a human or object-like shape, it is impossible to detect any specificity from them. Employee identities are entirely protected.

And lastly, most optical sensors and their associated platforms comply with GDPR CPIA, ISO/IEC 27001, and SOC2 Type II. This ensures that all information is encrypted and stored at one of the highest-security data centers. Data is also backed up daily and stored in multiple locations to assist with faster recovery. Employees can thus rest assured that the security of their information and identity is well-protected.

IoT Occupancy Sensors

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a fun name for all physical objects in your office that collect data and communicate it to your company's databases and systems via the internet. All occupancy and vacancy sensors—whether used to implement hot desking or track the number of people in a conference room—are IoT sensors.

Investing in smart building technology has significant ROI for your company. IoT sensors transform the efforts of your operations team. They provide leadership teams and company stakeholders with invaluable information to decide how to right-size the office. And IoT sensors increase energy savings, making your office space more sustainable and cost-efficient.

How to elevate your company's ROI with sensor data

Behind labor costs, real estate is the highest line item on a company's budget. And with hybrid work the new normal, it is crucial that companies reassess their real estate portfolios.

Occupancy sensors give leadership teams insight into how, when, and why spaces are used. You can then make informed, confident decisions about the size of your office and how to allocate each sq. ft. Properly investing in your workplace will ensure that each dollar you spend on real estate directly correlates to employee productivity and satisfaction.

How VergeSense can help

Are you interested in speaking with a workplace expert to help determine which occupancy sensors might be the right fit for your needs?

VergeSense provides many of the world's leading enterprises with highly accurate data paired with its spatial intelligence platform. This transforms executives' understanding of their spaces so that they can

  • Design spaces to inspire employee productivity
  • Right-size their commercial real estate portfolios
  • Efficiently manage their facilities
  • Power a better employee experience
  • Plan for future workplace needs with data-driven confidence

Curious to know more? Get in touch with a workplace expert today to learn what sensor technology is right for you. Request Demo

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the difference between an occupancy sensor and a motion sensor?

A motion sensor detects a moving object. An occupancy sensor detects the presence of people. How, you might ask?

Have you ever been working in a room when the lights suddenly turned off? That happened because the lights were connected to a motion sensor. Once you stopped moving, the motion sensor thought the room was empty and turned the lights off. But an occupancy sensor tunes into properties of the human body (height, weight, sound). And thus, even if a person is stationary for a significant amount of time, the occupancy sensor will know the room is still occupied and keep the lights on.

Motion detectors work fairly well for simple tasks such as controlling the light. But to fully understand how a space is being used, you need an occupancy sensor.

2. What is the best occupancy sensor?

Let’s think about it in terms of budget restrictions and the scope of your project. If you have a limited budget and need rudimentary occupancy information, PIR sensors will be right for you. They are relatively inexpensive and only take a couple of seconds to install. But the data PIR sensors collect is limited and often inaccurate.

Optical sensors, on the other hand, can provide you with holistic information as well as vital context to make sense of the data. Their anonymous computer vision technology paired with artificial intelligence make optical sensors the most sophisticated option on the market. But they are a financial investment and typically take 60 to 90 days to install.

If you are interested in learning more, we did a deep dive into the differences between PIR and optical sensors here. Or you can contact a workplace expert to discuss your occupancy sensor needs.

3. What is a vacancy sensor, and how is it different to an occupancy sensor?

A vacancy sensor will perceive that a room is empty and will automatically turn off the lights. The trick is that vacancy sensors can't turn the lights on—they need a person to flip the wall switch manually.

This is only practical for a conference room with windows (it can be hard to find a light switch in the dark). And it increases physical contact with surfaces (no thank you, Covid-19!). Occupancy sensors, on the other hand, can seamlessly auto-on and off the lights.