Herman Millers space utilization gizmo has global success

April 17, 2009
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ZEELAND — Between advances in technology, generational work differences and that rabbit hole commonly referred to as the economy, companies increasingly are finding a need to re-evaluate their work spaces.

For many years, such evaluations were done using "bed checks," meaning someone physically walked around with a clipboard and checked off how many employees were seated at their desks and what meeting rooms were being used. At the 2008 NeoCon World's Trade Fair, however, Herman Miller Inc. let loose its Space Utilization Service, which puts the bed checks to bed.

Space Utilization Service is a wireless technology that audits the needs of individual, group and community spaces. Simply put, SUS works by attaching remote sensors, called motes, throughout an office environment. They can be attached to chairs or the underside of work surfaces and constantly read vibrations to record how often a person is at their seat. The data is uploaded to receivers every 10 minutes before being forwarded to Herman Miller, where the information is dissected, allowing a customer to receive much more detailed and accurate information on how its office space is being used.

"As you can imagine, from a financial economic standpoint, a lot of our clients are trying to figure out how to save money. On a typical corporate expense ledger, the second highest cost tends to be real estate, so they see this as a means to save money," said Todd A. Thompson, advanced development manager for Herman Miller. "We've been under heavy, heavy demand. The financials, insurances — all of those types that have been hardest hit are asking us for this service and it's been overwhelming."

While most popular in regions where real estate is at a premium, the demand has been so overwhelming that it has caused Herman Miller to design new equipment that allows the service to reach a broader customer base and also shortens the time needed to get the data results back to the customer.

Along with aiding companies in saving money on real estate, the product also helps Herman Miller learn how to produce more efficient office solutions.

 "When we go in and measure a client, we know so much about how that client's space is being used. Then we can act upon that in various levels and, obviously, product is probably the end level," said Thompson.

Showing a client how its office space is used, however, is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the type of information SUS can provide, according to Thompson.

"I think one of the benefits of the Space Utilization Service that has yet to be fully realized is, as we accumulate knowledge into this database, it will become a normalized database," he said. "So a financial firm may say, 'We do these types of work-place functions in our area. How does that compare to other financial firms?' Having a normalized database, we'll be able to show them the average or the mean — what the standard deviations are."

For instance, Thompson said that some companies may not know what an occupancy rate for their particular industry should be.

"Occupancy rates tend to vary with industries and they also tend to vary with a particular application. Say, trading desks where you've got active traders … those people are at their desks all the time. They rarely leave. Whereas some levels of financial management, those people are rarely at their stations and are more likely to be in conference rooms," said Thompson.

"You can start seeing some commonalities between applications, and a lot of those applications may be systemic to different industries. Then, you know that 73 percent occupancy may be a very good number for one industry and not so for another, just based on the work that goes on there.

"That sort of information  — not only can we help our clients so they have a better designed, more informed space, but obviously, for our own purposes, we can create better designs to support that type of work."

SUS garnered the most recognition for its use at Hewlett Packard in Melbourne, Australia, winning Herman Miller the H. Bruce Russell Innovator's Award from CoreNet Global.

"From the get-go, the demand was global. HP, for an example, has offices all over the world, and they have a mandate on reducing their real estate," he said. "We've got a lot of work with measuring their current real estate, not only in North America but in Asia, Middle East, Europe — everywhere."

The unexpected demand for the product on a global stage has added somewhat of a wrinkle for Herman Miller. SUS was originally developed to use radio frequencies and going global caused the company to take on a global radio frequency solution.

"It is overwhelming demand, much more than we ever expected," said Thompson. "Because of it, we are redesigning some elements of the service so that we can scale it more quickly."

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