New COVID-19 Technology Aids Safe Workplace Reopening — but Is It Worth It?

By Erica Snyder Friday, September 4, 2020

While remote work has quickly become the norm in the past six months due to COVID-19, a few companies are looking toward technology to help mitigate the risks associated with their employees returning to work. Technology could be a key component in helping prevent outbreaks amongst employees back in the workplace, in addition to the implementation of physical safety measures like personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing. But as students trickle back to universities and employees begin braving the office — and as COVID-19 cases continue to rise — the question still lingers: is in-person work worth the risk?

Low-code automation platform Appian recently partnered with marketing agency LeadtoMarket to survey over 200 HR professionals from companies with over 1,000 employees, and detail their findings in the “Returning the Workforce to the Workplace" report. The report’s data reveals how most companies remain focused on physical safety procedures, like requiring face coverings, limiting capacity to encourage social distancing, enhancing cleaning efforts, and conducting daily health screenings. However, few companies include technological components in their back-to-work plan; in fact, 97% of the survey’s respondents are not investing in new technology to help ensure employees’ safety when back in the workplace.

Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, says that companies must invest in software to aid in a safe workplace return. “When dealing with the health and well being of hundreds or thousands of people, businesses need the speed that software delivers in tracking daily health updates, monitoring test results, identifying potential exposures, and conducting contact tracing,” Calkins says.

It’s important to note that the survey only asked respondents if they’re investing in new technology; in other words, many companies may have sufficient pre-existing software they're using to track employees’ health data. Or, they may be using more announcement-based platforms like Workplace by Facebook or Microsoft Teams to share critical COVID-19 related information quickly. Health-tracking software actively organizes and stores data, whereas an announcement based platform is a way to share information once an incident’s already occurred. It’s preventative versus restorative.

According to CNBC, digital contact tracing could easily become a multi-billion dollar industry, and everyone’s attempting to create their own unique software. Some companies are modifying their pre-existing technology, shaping prior software used for other purposes, into a COVID-19 tracking solution while others are starting from scratch. In terms of legality, Mark Barnes, health partner at Ropes and Gray Law Firm, wrote that it’d most likely be legal for privatized companies to require that employees download contact tracing software.

Consulting firm PwC recently launched its own contact tracing software, “Check-In,” which is now marketing to clients. PwC’s product allows all employees to check in on a web application in order to help HR understand who’s working remotely and on-site each day. Additionally, the application collects geofenced proximity data that’s limited to the workplace, which can help HR pinpoint, at-risk users, once an outbreak is reported.

Tech giants, like Microsoft, are also shifting to provide the public with Coronavirus resources; Microsoft partnered with UnitedHealth to create its own application, ProtectWell. Compared to PwC’s Check-In, Microsoft will be offering its application for free with a Fall 2020 launch date, but it’s important to note ProtectWell is a screening app versus a contact tracing one. ProtectWell will provide daily symptom tracking for all employees and any other patron who enters the workplace to help ensure no symptomatic people enter the site. However, the app fails to address that many people infected with Coronavirus are asymptomatic. ProtectWell will also provide guidance for testing and general best-practice resources for the coronavirus.

Implementing digital contact tracing will provide the most amount of protection for employees working for larger companies since it can pinpoint who is at risk for exposure. For small companies, specifically less than 20 employees, a screening application will be enough to mitigate the risks and help confirm that those working each day are healthy. Again, neither type of software will help those who are asymptomatic — the only way to absolutely guarantee your employees’ safety is to keep them home. But for those companies who need their employees back in the workplace, implementing technological solutions will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and aid in employees feeling safer about working on-site once again.

About the Author

Headshot for author Erica Snyder

Erica Snyder is a freelance writer and photographer who focuses on tech and LGBTQ+ culture. Their work can be found in a range of publications, ranging from IEEE Spectrum Magazine to Autostraddle.

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