HomeNewsCOVID-19 crisis: This AI system knows why you can't concentrate on work

COVID-19 crisis: This AI system knows why you can’t concentrate on work

A new sensor-based system developed by RMIT and Arup can offer insights on how to get the best out of these flexible working spaces

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In a latest research published in journal IEEE Internet of Things, computer scientists at Autralia’s RMIT University have developed a way to measure staff comfort and concentration in flexible working spaces using artificial intelligence (AI). People around world have been working from home ever since the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with coronavirus restrictions beginning to ease in some parts of the world and employers planning the return to office-based work, a new sensor-based system developed by RMIT and Arup can offer insights on how to get the best out of these flexible working spaces.

The RMIT team behind the study are experts in using AI to uncover patterns in human behaviour. In order to carry out the research, they worked with psychologists to identify several key variables for concentration and comfort levels in work environments, then set about measuring these with sensors.

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With an aim to develop and test the new AI-driven system, the researcher at RMIT University worked with global design and engineering firm Arup over four weeks on 31 staff in two of the company’s activity-based working offices.

According to study lead author and Research Fellow in RMIT University’s School of Science Dr Mohammad Saiedur Rahaman: “Data was collected on noise levels, indoor temperature and air quality, humidity, air pressure, and even electromagnetic fields. We used that information along with survey data to train machine learning algorithms that could identify patterns in perceived concentration and activity, and then provided solutions for making these spaces work best for people.”

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Asserting that recent technological developments and the proliferation of pervasive technologies had opened up many opportunities to collect data from various sensors and smart devices, study leader from RMIT’s School of Science Flora Salim, who is an associate professor, said, “Despite the myriad applications harnessing this data for smart decision-making systems, this is the first research we’re aware of that has used pervasive sensing passively to measure workers perceived concentration levels while they are at work.”

The RMIT researchers discovered that the staff was generally supportive of their activity-based working setup. However, data identified that different people concentrated better in different zones, as well as other important insights for managing staff in the space. Like many people had a favourite working spot and found concentrating more difficult if they weren’t able to sit there. Apart from this, workers were also more sensitive to the office temperature not being exactly right if they missed out on their favourite seat. Regardless of where they sat, office temperature was a major factor in how comfortable and focused people were, noticed the researchers.

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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. A major influence on perceived concentration in the mornings, unsurprisingly, was sleep quality the night before.

“We see this type of system having the potential to eventually be used to enable informed decision-making regarding workplace design and layout, or even to suggest to people when to take breaks, what zone might suit them best and so on,” Rahaman said.

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. 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.’

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