U.S. companies are preparing to welcome employees back to their offices, three months after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted corporate operations worldwide. As with the outbreak’s onset, companies find themselves in uncharted territory.
Businesses have never been under so much pressure to create safe environments for employees, with the caveat that there is no bullet-proof protection against a novel virus for which there is no vaccine. Still, it’s incumbent on companies to take every precaution.
IT departments are evaluating several technologies designed help lock down potential virus vectors and provide a safe working environment. Fifty-eight percent of 200 IT leaders plan to invest in smart personal hygiene devices, such as connected hand sanitizer stations, while 36 percent plan to invest in contactless sensors, according to a poll Insight Enterprises conducted in May. Thirty-five percent of IT leaders will buy infrared thermometers, while 25 percent plan to install thermal cameras.
Many enterprises are also deploying mobile and machine learning (ML) software, chatbots and other tools, experts tell CIO.com. Less clear is about whether and how companies will implement contact tracing to try to triage and identify connections between employees who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Bringing IoT to bear on fever detection
Insight Enterprises has implemented thermal scanners in its Hanover Park, Ill., office that check people’s temperatures in real-time and fire off an alert if someone reads a little hot, according to Stan Lequin, general manager of digital innovation for the technology solutions provider.
The system, which scans up to 30 people at once, can be configured to ping the employee on their mobile phone, or notify security or an office manager if it flags them as exceeding the 99 degree threshold. It relies on other hardware sensors, as well as Insight’s Connected Platform, a software hub for collecting, routing and analyzing data from sensors. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything to protect our teammates,” Lequin says.
Insight has also created a “walk-up” kiosk, which it is currently testing in its Tempe, Ariz., headquarters, that includes a connected thermometer for scanning employees’ temperatures. The kiosk includes a chatbot that will answer questions, based on information from CDC guidelines, employees enter via voice or typing about next steps they should take if their temp is elevated.
Another solution, designed to protect employees within the office, uses optical cameras and ML to detect whether people are wearing facemasks and are maintaining appropriate physical distance from each other. The app fires off an alert to an on-site manager when employees are within 6 feet of each other; the manager has the discretion over what action to take.
Interest in the solutions is keen, as Insight has fielded 70 calls from clients, Lequin says. The company is currently conducting 10 pilot tests.
Contact tracing is another tool under consideration at Insight. Lequin says that the firm is exploring whether to have employees install an app on their phone to track their movements relative to other people, or to integrate an RFID chip on employee badges to determine proximity to people. They devil is in the details; asking employees to install a mobile app on their phones to track their movements may be intrusive. An IoT-enabled badge? Perhaps less so.
“If I was to work in the same facility and I get the virus, it would be valuable for HR to know what co-workers I came into contact with prior to the diagnosis to understand who else might be at risk,” Lequin says.
Checking in to the office, from home
Most companies are simply grappling with how to welcome employees back. Okta is using mobile software that allows employees to notify the company before they come into work, says Armen Vartanian, senior vice president of the single sign-on software maker’s global workplace services business. The company will admit only 30 percent of the 2,000 employees who normally work in its San Francisco office during any work day. The software, from startup Envoy, allows employees to “sign-in” virtually the night before they plan to come in and is customized to cap capacity at 600 people.
“We’re not opening offices to the capacities we once had until there is an effective treatment for COVID-19,” Vartanian says, adding that Okta is taking a phased approach to opening offices based on the regulations that govern each market.
Employees who are more likely to make it into the office include those who need to have face-to-face meetings, or whose work-from-home situations dictate it. Those who register via Envoy’s software will answer a short questionnaire to help screen for potential illness. Okta is conducting temperature checks of employees on entry.
Inside the office Okta employees’ desks have been reconfigured to ensure that employees are physically distanced by the recommended six feet and surfaces within the facility are being regularly sanitized, Vartanian says. The company is also limiting the number of people allowed on each elevator trip to two.
Okta is also currently evaluating contact tracing, which Vartanian says could help keep employees safe. But Okta is still considering what the implementation and process flow will look like with regard to “tracking and tracing” workers through smartphones. Envoy can provide some of these capabilities without being “too onerous” for employees,” Vartanian says.
Why there may be no going back
The pandemic has also forced organizations to rethink whether they really need to revert to pre-pandemic procedures and protocols.
Schneider Electric, for example, is rethinking the importance of providing on-site tours of its manufacturing facilities, which it offered regularly before the coronavirus crippled airline travel. The company is ramping up virtual tours of its manufacturing execution systems in its facilities in St. Louis and Lexington, says Luke Durcan, director of the company’s EcoStruxure business. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, only essential staff have been permitted to enter the building to operate and maintain the industrial robots, programmable logic controllers and other systems, which build distribution boards that power garage doors, safety switches and other electrical systems.
Schneider sales staff equipped with noise-canceling headphones and an iPhone perched on a gimbal walk the manufacturing floor, explaining how the various components work through the Microsoft Teams conferencing app. Participants, numbering as many as 12 per tour, ask questions at any stage.
In May, Durcan conducted two virtual tours within 10 days, though he expects Schneider may offer as many as six or eight per month. The virtual tour can’t replicate some experiences. For instance, potential clients miss tours that are a popular part of Schneider’s pitch, such as visiting Kentucky’s famous whiskey stills.
Okta, meanwhile, has embarked on its own “dynamic” workplace journey, in which more employees may work permanently from home, claims Vartanian. The company has built a special WFH ecommerce store where employees can order ergonomic furniture, such as adjustable standing desks, webcams, monitors, keyboards and other equipment to enable an optimal working environment from home.
“We’ve told employees to think of Okta as a remote-first company,” Vartanian says, adding the employees’ productivity scores have soared since the WFH relocation. “There’s no big rush to enable people to come back to the office.”
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