Technology has been helping us return to the office, when pandemic restrictions measures allow, and will continue to support businesses to adapt to an ever-changing situation. But how can this be done while maintaining our privacy?
I’ve always seen technology as a great means of solving problems – it’s why I became an engineer. This continues to be true in this pandemic era we’re all living through, and technology has adapted quickly to support the challenges coronavirus has presented us with. The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to disrupt global business activities and this looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. We have seen a dramatic shift, not only in the current occupancy and usage of offices, but in the ways companies and employees expect to work in the future.
Technology can play a role in keeping people safe, while the threat of infection remains, and in smoothing the transition back to physical workplaces as this becomes more possible. Deployment of technology needs to be carefully considered, balancing the benefits with any potential impact on privacy for users. This conversation is especially prominent at the moment with many countries releasing Contact Tracing apps, such as the UK NHS app released (to significant delays) in September.
Bringing employees back to the workplace is especially important for those employees who may have been working in sub-optimal environments at home or struggling with the effects of continued isolation. City economies are also seeing the impact of this extended loss of business driven by an office-based workers.
Here’s a dive into some of the most popular tech and ideas about how it can be used responsibly.
One safety measure being deployed is temperature screening on the way into a building, to ensure people don’t have a fever – one of the symptoms of a Coronavirus infection. Specialist thermal imaging cameras can add an extra layer of safety by reducing the chances of an infected person entering a building. Contact-free scanning can be done from a distance of up to 3m, in a few seconds, to reduce delays and queuing at entrances.
Live temperature screening can be done without storing temperature data or linking readings directly to people, avoiding privacy concerns and working within GDPR regulations. Systems that store readings or that collect and transmit data to the cloud to process, such as those that use AI to detect faces, could impact privacy and employers need to consider the implications of these solutions. Businesses should ensure their vendor has the necessary cyber and data security procedures in place.
For some time, buildings are going to need to run at greatly reduced occupancy, perhaps 30% of full capacity, to allow for safe distancing. People who are in the building also need to be evenly spread throughout the space. IoT sensors can be used to monitor occupancy of rooms and where people are in an open office space. This live occupancy data means employees can check if there is a desk or room available before they travel into the office, and can free up unused spaces if booked but not claimed. Utilisation analysis of rooms and desks helps to ensure effective and optimised cleaning.
Motion flows of people around the building can highlight areas of high traffic to further focus cleaning and identify any high traffic routes that may have bottlenecks. Building managers can also view the real occupancy of spaces in the building to ensure safety measures are working, raising an alert if areas stray over safe capacity levels.
Whilst this monitoring can improve safety, provide reassurance to employees and enable real estate teams to manage a very difficult situation, it is important that and privacy is retained. These use cases are possible using anonymous sensing based on Passive Infrared (PIR) sensors, which detect the heat emitted from a person to determine occupancy or motion, without identifying individuals personally. We can also use methods such as Wi-Fi sensing to estimate general occupancy density of areas within a building from the number of devices in the space. This uses existing infrastructure and only looks for the anonymous MAC address (like a serial number) of devices.
One way in which identifiable tracking may be beneficial is for contact tracing; one of the important measures required to contain the spread of COVID-19. This involves finding all people that a person came into contact with in the days before a COVID diagnosis. Technology can help to automate this process by logging the instances where people are in proximity with each other. Using the government-backed apps developed nationally, for example by the NHS in the UK is a great start. The UK app, built on Apple/Google framework, uses short range Bluetooth tracing directly between mobile devices; it does not require any location data, apart from the first half of a home postcode and no personal user information is needed. These apps need high participation rates to be effective so the more people that use them, the more likely we are to reliably trace possible infections.
Bluetooth sensors in buildings can also be used to track assets or people, either through physical Bluetooth tags, or using their mobile devices. This is being used to help to identify the areas of a building that an infected person spent time in, and the other people they may have come into contact with.
To preserve privacy and choice, employees would need to opt into the measures, and would not be tracked by default. It’s also important for employers to ensure privacy is maintained in the process they implement. There are ways to keep the data anonymous, for example assigning a unique ID number to Bluetooth tags as shown in the diagram below. An infected person could then share their ID number with the real estate team, allowing them to identify the areas the person visited, and the other tag IDs that may be at risk, publishing a list for employees to identify themselves and isolate accordingly.
A great example of using existing technologies to support with pandemic response and safe return to work is with workplace applications. These apps offer a number of tools to help manage access to COVID-safe offices, for example by reserving a space or booking a socially distanced desk. Data provided to real-estate or EHS teams helps to track the number of people using offices and ensure safe limits are adhered to, both from total occupancy, and occupancy density across open office floors. New facilities such as hand sanitizer stations or modified services such as toilets and refreshments can be made visible in the app. Navigating the safe workplace can be aided through way finding and indoor positioning (using the Bluetooth sensors mentioned earlier), considering one-way routes and open/closed areas.
Workplace apps can be deployed quickly, in as little as 1-2 weeks for some features, making them ideal for the current situation. Given the huge shift to agile and hybrid working that we are already experiencing, these applications also provide data to aid improved office layouts, showing space/desk utilisation based on real-time and historic usage data. Companies can use this data-driven approach to inform their ongoing real-estate strategies, ensuring they have the right amount and types of workspace for peak and average demand. For some this may allow consolidation of their current offices, or reduction in overall space required and related operating costs.
Thinking about privacy, it is important that these apps are considered as an extension of the IT infrastructure companies use, think email or office applications, and treated accordingly. This means finding a supplier that has industry standard security credentials in place, ensures data privacy and compliance with GDPR and who is compliant with local regulations. It’s also important to think about who will run and maintain the app, ensuring any bugs or security vulnerabilities are addressed with regular updates.
A number of app features, such as desk booking or navigation are more powerful when combined with IoT sensors. There are loads of sensor providers available now, with different strengths and suited to different applications. We must think about the type of data these sensors collect and where they are placed – best to avoid using camera-based sensors in toilets for example. Indoor positioning or people tracking should also be done in a way that reassures people – allowing people to easily opt in or out of tracking.
I believe, for the examples above and more, that technology can be a really powerful part of any workplace strategy – pandemic or otherwise. I also believe we have a duty to ensure this technology is deployed responsibly, with users empowered to decide how much data they want to share.
Ultimately, companies need to think carefully about what they deploy and beware of invasive technologies, or those from unknown vendors or vendors with poor track records; especially where user data is involved.
Privacy can be upheld, whilst still benefiting from data-driven solutions, so there is no need to decide between these goals. As with all investments, it also makes sense to keep an eye on long term benefit, and consider how technology can help with this current situation, but also with the ‘New Normal’ we find ourselves in, long after a vaccine is found (fingers crossed!).