The Future Workspace: Safe Office Social Distancing

As some states begin to lift lockdown restrictions, companies gear up to open their offices in ways that ensure employee safety and social distancing requirements. Businesses are tapping into an array of IoT technologies—many using employee cell phones—to create work environments that reduce touchpoints and limit the likelihood of an outbreak among staff.


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Image credit: Radiant RFID


Not since 9/11 have office buildings undergone such a drastic change as the one predicted for reopening after the Covid-19 pandemic. Large office buildings in urban areas will look very different as they welcome back employees who have been working from home for the past several weeks. Even smaller offices will be impacted, although perhaps not to the same degree.

Companies which once touted shared, collaborative workspaces are now redesigning their open floor plans to ensure workers maintain social distancing and limiting contact. But more than separating desks, revamped offices will feature hand sanitizer stands, plexiglass dividers, and an even greater reliance on the employee’s cell phone.


The Challenges of Going to Work

Perhaps one of the most vexing issues is the process of getting employees safely into their workspaces. Keyless entry is becoming more common in office buildings, and that’s likely to continue as companies seek to reduce touchpoints. Companies like Kisi offer cloud-based softkey and mobile phone access to offices, restrooms, and other areas, enabling workers to use their own devices to enter workspaces.

Property managers are also exploring voice-activated elevators or digitally assigning elevators via an app on each employee’s mobile phone which will reduce touchpoints for elevators. Vancouver-based Picovoice created a way to integrate its existing voice control platform into elevators, intercoms, and other devices. The add-on voice artificial intelligence system works like a smart speaker and uses edge computing, which increases security, privacy, and energy efficiency because nothing is sent to the cloud. Picovoice is working with property managers to install the device in existing elevators. 

Even with touchless elevators, businesses in high-rise office buildings will need to offer staggered work schedules or flexible work from home options. The Willis Tower in Chicago has 110 floors and is home to 150,000 workers. An average elevator ride is 30 to 60 seconds; if only four people can ride in an elevator at one time, each facing a different wall, getting 200 employees to the office floor would take at least two hours.

Building management companies are looking at thermal imaging to check workers’ temperatures. Temperature scans are already being used in some office buildings and in warehouse distribution centers, and thermal imaging companies, like FLIR, are seeing an unprecedented uptick in business. Other IoT technologies will help to minimize touch points through no-touch doors, light switches, and faucets. Discover Financial Services has reconfigured its HVAC systems to introduce more outside air in buildings to improve circulation.

In-Office Contact Tracing

To stem office-wide outbreaks, PricewaterhouseCoopers is launching a contact tracing tool as part of a workforce productivity app called Check-In. According to a PwC poll of more than 300 chief financial officers, 22 percent plan to implement some form of contract tracing. PwC’s tool—either a new app or line of code in an existing app—will help companies identify workers who come into contact with an infected colleague. The app acts as a beacon within the confines of the office, tracking frequency and proximity of contact with other devices.

Screens depicting information on contact tracing

Image credit: PricewaterhouseCoopers

The PwC app requires an employee to self-report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis and allows authorized managers to quickly notify other employees who may be at risk. The app can trace contacts back 14 or 21 days and rates the level of contact with others—low, medium, or high—based on the signal strength. The PwC tool only traces cell phones on company property and does not collect location data.

IoT-connected wearable sensors are moving from hospital environments to manufacturing environments and business offices. Radiant RFID, based in Austin, TX, has developed a watch-like wristband that vibrates when workers are not maintaining proper spacing. Ford is testing Radiant’s wearables in its factories, but the technology can easily shift to corporate offices, public transportation systems, manufacturing centers, and distribution warehouses. Commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, which created the “Six Feet Office” model to ensure social distancing, is also creating in-office beacons to discourage close contact among employees.  

COVID-19 has altered our current and future work environment. Prior to the pandemic, global staffing company Robert Half found that only 47 percent of professionals said their companies offered the option to work remotely. Clearly that has changed, as working from home has, for now, become the new normal. Now, as businesses prepare to re-open, they will identify and implement new technologies for their offices, and IoT technologies will find an even broader market.


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