Tech Can Only Go So Far In Getting Us Back To Work After Covid-19

Maintaining social distance, good hygiene and tracking employee health will be key to keeping companies operating in the post-pandemic world

Rear view of business owner wearing medical mask placing open sign ″OPEN BUSINESS AS NEW NORMAL″ on front door.

Businesses reopening will have to take measures to keep staff and customers safe.

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As the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic starts to recede, companies across the nation are starting to reopen. Businesses face a twin challenge – to get back to business as soon as they can while keeping their workers and customers safe.

Companies now face unprecedented hurdles as they struggle to reopen, but there is a growing number of technological weapons they can deploy to make workplaces safe, a new report from tech research group Lux Research, asserts.

“Companies are under tremendous pressure to open businesses as quickly as possible while still keeping employees safe,” says Danielle Bradnan, research associate and lead author of the report, Back in Business: Using Technology to Open During COVID-19. “Employers need to understand that these solutions aren’t a guarantee of safety but a way of minimizing risk for employees. While many emerging technologies promise to help, their performance and scalability still need to be verified,” Bradnan explains.

Technology can help firms to ensure safety in three main ways, Lux says – by enabling social distancing, maintaining hygiene, and tracking employee health – with effective social distancing the key to success in minimizing infection. But, Bradnan adds, “unfortunately, many vendors have rushed into this space and are making questionable claims about the effectiveness and regulatory compliance of their solutions. Companies must do their due diligence to keep their employees safe. There is scant information available around the cost, maturity, and scalability of these solutions.”

One way that technology can help maintain social distancing is to monitor company assets remotely, allowing employees to work more effectively even if they are not on site. Firms can also ensure staff can keep in touch and up to date with training and other requirements using knowledge management tools, machine learning and big data analytics.

Knowledge management tools can automatically capture, interpret, and distribute the information that workers need to allow operations to be operated remotely, minimizing the need for onsite interaction. But not all work can be done offsite, and many critical tasks need employees onsite. Position-detecting sensors can help office workers to ensure social distancing is maintained and industrial processes can be automated using robotics technology.

There is a range of options for monitoring employee health as well, although these are less well-developed, less accurate and therefore less useful. Regulatory agencies are recommending the use of self-assessment apps. “There are other solutions like remote temperature sensing, but many of these are fraught with error,” the report says. “Contact tracing beacons and antibody testing have also been posited as solutions, but Lux Research recommends against both at this point.

“Contact tracing isn’t helpful directly for stopping the spread of the disease and is not a great population-level fit, especially with such mobile populations as the typical workforce. Regarding antibodies, at the time of writing, there is no conclusive evidence yet that having antibodies to the virus means a person is immune to catching or spreading it again.

“What we do know is that no single solution will be a fix-all,” says Bradnan. “When selecting the right portfolio of solutions for a company’s unique needs, it’ll need to also consider the downstream impacts of the technology adopted. For example, with solutions like wearables, how is employee data being collected and handled to maintain privacy? Will employees have to be trained on the use of new assets? How are these new assets being monitored, or even cleaned?”

But when it comes to maintaining hygiene, although there are a few technological options such as UV lamps and filtration systems, there is little replacement for tried and tested techniques of manual disinfection, and making sure there is plenty of hand sanitizer and  PPE available. That’s a timely reminder that technology will play a role in getting back to work safely, but it won’t replace the benefits of effective cleaning and keeping your distance.

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