Every so often, disasters occur that change huge parts of how we live our lives. Whether it’s a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or a man-made one like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, these events leave lasting memories and can single handedly change how our economies operate. It is clear that COVID-19 is shaping up to be a similarly impactful tragedy, but this slow motion calamity is yielding much different outcomes than reinforced levees or a halt to the expansion of nuclear generating stations. Instead, what we are seeing is a rapidly growing emphasis on data-based approaches and automated decision-making to keep our cities, homes, and perhaps most obviously, workplaces safer than would be possible with manual approaches.
First of all, we’re seeing workplace analytics and automation tech deployed faster than before. Just as the White House’s “Warp Speed” project is meant to speed up vaccine development, there is a similar rush towards deploying tech in the workplace and the commercial building quickly since these tools are relevant right now, not just when the IT team makes time to thoroughly vet everything. One example software is Watson Works, an AI toolset that helps companies manage the return to work. According to Bob Lord, Senior Vice President of Cognitive Applications, Blockchain and Ecosystems at IBM, “We’ve designed Watson Works to help businesses navigate the workplace with the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis as effectively as possible. Applying AI models and applications is especially useful in this context, where there are so many different sources of information businesses must consider, and every aspect of the situation is in flux.”
This greater speed of adoption is particularly necessary right now for things like back-to-work preparation, because tools need to be set up and physical spatial adjustments made before employees actually return to the office. With the need for greater speed comes the need for greater communication, in order to keep occupiers aware of changes or new policies. Lukas Balik is CEO of Spaceflow, a tenant experience app. He told me that “it is absolutely essential not only to introduce measures but to communicate them clearly and frequently…one recent example is Allianz’s property management informing about improved ventilation, increased frequency of disinfection, or limited elevator capacity.” The virus outbreak is making it clearer than ever that owners and occupiers alike need to work together to ensure collective safety, since both landlord and tenant are responsible for different parts of the same workplace whole.
There is no doubt that the breakneck pace of the virus response is not ending anytime soon. According to Lenovo’s Commercial IoT Group President John Gordon, “It takes a while, even if we have proven solutions at a global scale ready to deploy. So starting the projects, figuring out where things are going to go, that has to be done ahead of time. So if policies shift region by region and someone says ‘you can now let your employees back’ and you haven’t started yet, you’re still a month out to be able to do it right,” since actually setting up the policies, tools, and infrastructure to manage a socially distant workplace return takes more than a little time. Lenovo recently launched an IoT solution for workplace safety, leveraging tools from several different providers: Openpath, which provides touchless access; Viper Imaging, which provides temperature screening; L Squared, which offers digital signage; Relogix, which allows for occupancy monitoring; and Inpixon, which offers contact tracing for employees and visitors.
In this case, the virus outbreak provides an opportunity as well as a challenge: Some of the best practices for dealing with the coronavirus are things that people actually wanted anyway. Touchless access? That is something that commercial buildings were getting even before the pandemic. Food delivery options? Judging by the growth of businesses like Uber Eats, also a desirable thing. Contact tracing in the office to keep workers safer? There were workplace analytics tools doing similar things beforehand as well. Start developing your building’s IoT infrastructure now, because it will help you keep your tenants or employees safe, and then retain those providers and functionalities that continue to add value to your building once the outbreak is in the rearview mirror.
Another change we may see is very similar to what we saw after 9/11—greater data collection. In general, things like workplace contact tracing are more or less anonymous, focusing less on finding the identities of the specific people who may be carriers, and more on alerting people who may have been exposed en masse. But normalizing data collection through things like voluntary self-affirmation about disease symptoms, which is an important and well-advised component of the back-to-work process, could lead to data collection in other areas as well.
Gregory Blondeau is Founder and CEO of Proxyclick, a touchless visitor management system being used to increase workplace safety at companies like L’Oreal. He told me that workplaces in the future will collect more data in the process of completing visitor due diligence, but that it’s possible to mitigate the risk of storing personal information through, ironically, more automation. “Some people may call this a tradeoff of sorts but in reality, when you have an advanced visitor management solution in place it’s possible to automate data retention periods. In this way, visitor data can be deleted regularly and even manually. We do anticipate hearing pushback as a natural reflex to implementing tools and technology, but there are checks and balances in place to ensure data privacy is upheld to the highest standards,” said Blondeau. Even so, there is an underlying either-or status here: either data is being collected in the first place or it is not. It is not a slippery slope argument to say that once we get used to more data being collected at our offices, just like taking shoes off at the airport, that behavior might stick.
It’s simple: There is a lot of valuable data that workplaces can stand to collect, and now that we are all getting used to making self-affirmations and getting our temperatures tested, it is only reasonable to assume that managers will probably shift that functionality to collect alternate data points after COVID-19 is behind us. These questions could range from innocuous to probing: “How do you feel coming to work today?” is one thing; “What did you do this morning?” is another.
Data collection and greater decision making speed at the workplace point to a final impact that COVID-19 will probably leave us with: more decisions made by machines. A system that automatically divides workers based on desk location into shifts for transmission reduction will be very helpful, but it will also reduce the amount of humanity in the office. Or consider the example of modern occupancy sensors that will provide indication of when a space reaches max capacity. A manager that comes out and actually tells people not to enter a conference room might be easier to accept than a computer automatically telling workers where they can’t go. This is the same challenge facing self-driving cars right now: Computers may be more efficient than humans, but listening to them takes more buy-in than listening to people.