by Zeus Kerravala

3 factors for implementing contact tracing in the workplace

Jul 24, 20206 mins
BudgetingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

As businesses plan to return to the office, CIOs need to develop a contact tracing strategy for a safe working environment.

man with mask office after covid coronavirus social distancing by martin dm getty images
Credit: Martin DM / Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has raged on now for several months with the majority of employees having shifted to working from home.  Even with cases rising in some parts of the country, many business leaders are starting to think about bringing employees back to the office.  The “when” will likely be decided by a combination of human resources and the CEO but the “how” will fall on the squarely on the already overworked shoulders of the CIO as technology will make a return to the workplace safe and possible.

Businesses will be aggressive

To get a better understanding of the timeline, my research firm, ZK Research, recently ran a Work From Home Survey and asked the respondents, “After the stay at home orders are lifted, when will a critical mass of office workers be back in the physical office?”  The results showed that most businesses will be aggressive although return will not be immediate. Only 7% said most workers would return to the office within 30 days, while 20% were planning for 1-2 months and another 35% said it would be 3-4 months.  That’s 62% of companies planning to bring back a critical mass of workers back into offices in four months or less.

Once workers are back, most will implement social distancing and take other precautions, but many will look to implement contact tracing as a way of understanding when infected people came in contact with others. Deploying contact tracing within the enterprise will involve network services, mobile technology and communications tools. To help technology and business leaders understand and prepare for contact tracing, cloud communications and contact center vendor Avaya recently held a virtual contact tracing leadership forum that was moderated by Chris Luxford from the consulting organization The Aspire! Group and included speakers from the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP), the United States of Care and Avaya.

How contact tracing slows the spread of COVID-19

The first speaker, Romni Neiman from CDC explained the process of contact tracing, which includes reaching out to notify people of possible exposure and provide health, education and guidance on how to stop the transmission of the virus. The goal of contact tracing is to identify people that were in close contact (within six feet) with infected individuals for 15 minutes or more two days prior to symptom onset or two days prior to the test if the person is asymptomatic.  

Contact tracing and the related case investigation is supported through digital tools that can enhance program functionality in a number of areas.  This includes surveillance systems in case management, contact tracing data management, active monitoring during isolation and quarantine and collaboration tools. The CDC has a list of digital contract tracing tools on its website and provides information to allow state and local health jurisdictions and businesses to compare the various types of tools.

Corey Butler, also of the CDC, explained how businesses can help with contact tracing by providing timely information about the work environment and potential contacts and exposures when requested by the health department. The CDC does recommend appointing a designated workplace coordinator to serve as the liaison to the health department. Butler admitted the CDC may not reach out to all employers, but businesses can be proactive as a coordinated approach works better.

Three factors to consider for contact tracing

As businesses plan on bringing people back to the office, implementing some element of contact tracing is key to creating a safe working environment.  A good way to implement contact tracing is to consider the following factors:

Current environment. In-building and campus contact tracing can be done via a variety of means.  Most WiFi solutions have basic contact tracing capabilities but their accuracy is limited to about 30 feet. For more granular analysis, Bluetooth and beacons can be used to narrow this down to a foot. Almost all of the WiFi vendors have this capability  and both Extreme Networks and Aruba Networks have formal contact tracing offerings. 

Also, most of the modern collaboration tools have usage dashboards that show people in meetings and many can show occupancy rates of conference rooms to see if people are violating restrictions. This, of course, requires all workers to keep their smart phones with them and IT may need to do some work to ensure Bluetooth is turned on.

Reporting of information. Using a contact tracing system where the data is compatible with local governments and jurisdictions will allow the information to be shared. When someone tests positive, it’s essential to notify everyone they have been in contact with in the previous 48 hours, whether that is just a few people or potentially hundreds or even thousands.  The outreach can be done person to person, by phone, chat or email, which can be very slow if done manually. David Petramala from Avaya discussed a solution it has built that automates the outreach via phone calls or text messages.  

Implementing virtual agents might seem like a daunting task but communications platform as a service (CPaaS) providers can give developers access to APIs enabling them to build contact tracing reporting applications in just a few days.  The host of the forum, Avaya and Twilio both have proofs of concept and how to guides on this.

Looking ahead. CIOs need to be prepared for spikes, government-mandated quarantines and other unexpected events. Testing scenarios should be put in place to plan for future events by establishing a decision matrix, governance/operating procedures, and leveraging emergency-ready technology platforms. While this is technology led, it needs to be coordinated with HR and business leaders.

Most people are looking to government leaders to navigate out of the COVID-19 era, but businesses will also play a key role.  Contact tracing requires technology investment and CIOs  will need to work with government agencies to slow the pandemic.