The Technology Likely To Play A Role In Our Transition Back To Work
Technology executives in recent weeks have scaled up remote work and collaboration tools, bolstered cybersecurity capabilities, strengthened networking and communications infrastructure, and equipped a distributed workforce with laptops and other devices they need to be productive.
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As discussion intensifies about re-opening the economy, firms are thinking through what an eventual return to work might look like and which technologies might enable it. At the top of many corporate wish lists is an increase in testing to help restore confidence and ensure safety as firms consider bringing some employees back.
While there is no clear timeline for a return to work, and schedules will likely vary based on location, industry and job function, at least a few technologies will play a role in monitoring health and safety and creating a smooth-as-possible transition back to work.
Technology-driven contact tracing and social distance monitoring
Many organizations are working to establish a secure and scalable form of contact tracing to track the spread of the virus and notify those who may have come into contact with an infected individual. Singapore released a mobile app in March that used Bluetooth technology to help complement its existing efforts, and MIT has been working on a system of its own. Last week, Apple and Google announced plans to develop software that health organizations could use to bolster their own contact tracing initiatives and provide greater interoperability between iOS and Android devices.
The jury is still out on how effective these tools will be. Critics have noted security and privacy concerns, and officials in Singapore said voluntary adoption rates have been relatively low. While these apps may help provide some assurance to workers, technology-led efforts will likely complement, rather than replace, traditional methods of tracking the virus.
A similar flavor of apps aims ensure proper social distancing at work. Landing AI released a detector that can be used in conjunction with security camera footage to track when people get too close to one another. The data it collects could help companies make decisions about how to redesign offices or factory floors. Amazon has used similar tools, and said in a recent blog post that it has assigned top machine-learning technologists to “capture opportunities in real time about how we can continue to improve social distancing in our buildings using technology.” Ford is testing wristbands that buzz when people get too close to one another.
Accurately tracking the spread of the virus, ensuring safety and accessing necessary testing will be key as the population begins returning to work. Implementation of these tools may be touch and go as companies iron out privacy issues and determine the most effective way to deploy them.
Continued reliance on remote collaboration tools, even at the office
The entire world won’t return to the office all at once (indeed, some positions will remain remote), which means continued reliance on collaboration tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft teams. A new wave of collaboration and productivity technologies may also see increased interest as they aim to improve upon what’s currently available. For example collaboration software maker Notion this month raised $50 million from investors at a time when many startups are struggling to survive.
Videoconferencing and other forms of remote collaboration show no signs of slowing down. John Beattie, principal consultant at Sungard Availability Services, said in an interview that many organizations have raised concerns of “concentration risk” among critical IT roles, which may mean employees who once worked in the same office will be spread across different locations. Videoconferencing may even become more common among people working in the same office as they try to maintain social distance. “I anticipate they will join virtual meetings instead of walking down the hall to conference rooms,” Beattie said.
A surge in sensors and connected devices
Commercial office buildings have become increasingly connected in recent years, and the trend is likely to continue as companies turn to technology to improve building safety and cleanliness. In addition to the social distancing tools above, it may become commonplace to have our temperature taken before entering the office. We may see more robots called in to clean, or use our voices to control the elevator so we don’t have to press any buttons.
Firms like Estimote have developed wearables that can aid in contact tracing and allow users to provide status updates on their health. Some buildings may choose to deploy sensors that can measure air quality and regulate the flow of HVAC systems. An uptick in wearables and sensors around the office can deliver valuable data that could influence how organizations rearrange physical space or modify workflows.
Expect more tech geared toward physical and mental health
In recent years, corporate wellness programs have added tools to help employees manage their mental and emotional well-being in addition to their physical health. That trend is likely to continue as organizations navigate this period of uncertainty and increased stress. Firms may roll out apps such as Calm or Headspace to encourage meditation and better sleep. In a recent LinkedIn post, Guardian Life CHRO Diana Scott said the insurer named April “Mindful Month” and is implementing a number of self-care tools including a podcast series and meditation app. Healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente teamed up with Livongo to offer an app that includes parenting tips and modules to help people manage stress. These kinds of technologies likely will continue to spark interest even before a widespread return to the office as companies prioritize health and safety.
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