Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Using Wi-Fi to Help Manage the Return to the Office

In some locations around the world, buildings that were closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus are beginning to open again — slowly. Fully opening offices will take months. During the process, employers will need to monitor their workspaces closely for social and physical distancing.

A technology we already have can help: Wi-Fi. It is pervasive in our workplaces, and Wi-Fi access points can act as powerful sensors. In particular, we can use location data gathered from Wi-Fi to help manage the re-introduction of workers, customers, and visitors into our facilities.

Our tool for this is Cisco DNA Spaces, a cloud-based system that offers site-specific, location-based analytics for any network using our Catalyst, Aironet, or Meraki wireless access points. Many of our customers already have a license for this product and simply need to turn it on. For others, we offer a 90-day, no-charge trial period to use the tool. Regardless, it should take under half an hour to activate and configure.

We have added applications on to our DNA Spaces platform to provide both real-time and historical analysis tools for businesses that are reopening their offices. The technology is flexible, and the amount of detail collected can be configured by each customer – from collecting anonymous statistical counts to individually identifying people at a site.

Watch Your Workspaces


Let’s look at an example of how the new DNA Spaces applications could help a business re-open its offices to bring people back to the workplace more safely, optionally communicate with specific people as needed, and improve the new workplace over time.

In the first phase of re-opening an office, we’re going to want to bring back a small proportion of employees and track how they use the space. The concern is that even with low population density in a building, people still may be congregating in hot-spots and breaking social and physical distance guidelines. We can use Cisco DNA Spaces’ Right Now app to see if this is happening at a site.

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DNA Spaces Right Now shows how many people are using your facilities at the moment.

Traditional data for building occupancy — pulled from access card badge-in records — can tell us how many people enter a building and when, but this data stream doesn’t usually monitor which parts of a building people use, nor when they leave. With Wi-Fi, we can gather much more robust data that tracks how people use, move, and occupy spaces throughout the day.

The Right Now service tracks new devices that enter a space when they connect to Wi-Fi, and by recording which access points are able to electronically “see” them, it can tell which part of the building they are in.

Businesses can use DNA Spaces in a privacy protective, fully anonymized mode (with hashed MAC addresses); in this mode, it does not record any information that could correlate device locations to specific people. It can tell a facilities manager how the workforce in a building is behaving overall, but not the identity of individuals on-site.

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You can set density alerts from the Web-based service.

With this data stream, we can watch how behavior changes as we allow more people back into the office over the weeks and months of a return-to-office program. In particular, we can determine if there is an occupancy load at which people start to cluster, breaking general distancing guidelines. If and when this happens, a company can work on reconfiguring hot-spot locations, educating employees, dialing back the number of people allowed into the office, or a combination of mitigations.

Enabling this feature on a network, if it is not already turned on, takes about 30 minutes. It does not require the installation of software on end-user devices.

At Cisco, we have been using DNA Spaces in fully anonymized mode in some of our offices in South Korea and China, after testing in our San Jose buildings. We will have more to say about how these projects are progressing soon.

Data for a Changing Office


Over time, as the return-to-office program gets established, businesses will need to evaluate the new use patterns and the economics of company workplaces. With our Impact Analysis app in DNA Spaces, facilities managers across a business will be able to see how buildings and campuses are being used – not just how much they are being used. We’ll be able to provide reports on time spent in the office, building utilization, and other metrics that could inform how workplaces could get reconfigured. We think these tools will be especially important for buildings that are used by visitors and guests, like stores and schools.

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DNA Spaces Impact Analysis shows how building use changes over time.

The applications to monitor building use are available now.

Meanwhile, we are investigating additional capabilities that customers could enable if we offered tracking of not just how devices move around a space in the aggregate, but whose devices they are. This more granular data would let employers contact specific employees and inform them of potential Covid-19 exposure, if necessary. Critically, these features will always be optional, and data collected in a company’s private network will always belong solely to the company that owns the network. DNA Spaces currently does not offer contact tracing to tell precisely who is near whom.

Activating Your Wi-Fi Sensors


We believe using Wi-Fi access points as sensors can provide facilities managers and business leaders with critical information that can help keep people safer, and make spaces more effective and efficient. All our tools are quick to set up, and we are making them available at no charge to all who can use them: Anyone running Cisco or Meraki wireless access points.

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