Can’t concentrate at work? This AI system knows why – RMIT University

Computer scientists have developed a way to measure staff
comfort and concentration in flexible working spaces using
artificial intelligence.

While hot desking and activity-based working allow cost savings
and greater flexibility – and are said to increase staff
collaboration and satisfaction – studies also show the noise and
lack of privacy can be distracting for some people.

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

 behind the study are experts in using AI to uncover
patterns in human behaviour.

For this project they worked with psychologists to identify
several key variables for concentration and comfort levels in work
environments, then set about measuring these with sensors. 

They worked with global design and engineering firm Arup to
develop and test their new AI-driven system on 31 staff in two of
the company’s activity-based working offices over four

Study lead author and Research Fellow in RMIT University’s
School of Science, Dr Mohammad Saiedur Rahaman, said 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,†Rahaman said.

What they found 

Staff were generally supportive of their activity-based working

However, data showed different people concentrated better in
different zones, as well as other important insights for managing
staff in the space. 

For example, many people had a favourite spot – such as near the
window, kitchen or their manager – and found concentrating more
difficult if they weren’t able to sit there. They 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. 

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. 

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.  

‘Informal meetings’ – run-ins encouraged by
activity based working – were also measured. While they were
preferred by some workers and could be used to reduce the number of
formal meetings, they were seen as another source of distraction
for others. 

Rahaman said 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,â€Â
Rahaman said. 

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Originally published by
RMIT University, Melbourne,
Australia | June 4, 2020