I’ve been meaning to write about connected tech in office buildings that could track fevers, ensure people maintain social distancing, and even help with contact tracing for a while now. But every time I get off the phone with an executive who has turned COVID-19 into a sales pitch, I feel frustrated. While connected tech in buildings will help us as we go back to work, it’s not the panacea that companies — and the media — are making it out to be.
For example, what happens when employees are in an office and one manager keeps getting within 3 feet of everyone else? Even if that’s caught on camera, it’s unlikely that a siren would sound (although that would be both hilarious and blatantly dystopian), or that the manager would get an immediate summons from HR. For repeat offenders, there may be some sort of a conversation that takes place, but there may not be, either. Think about how often HR fails workers when it comes to sexual harassment or other anti-social behavior.
In some companies, HR won’t be involved at all. Instead, there will be a safety officer. In industrial settings, this role is a valuable one that carries with it a lot of responsibility and attendant power to compel workers to act in accordance with the company rules and regulations. In more white-collar settings, this role may be a volunteer position or the job of an office manager, as it’s basically a way to keep people moving when there’s a fire drill.
So it’s possible that, thanks to COVID-19, we’re going to see a more defined safety officer role form, one with actual influence — including the ability to compel our recalcitrant manager to back away from his employees. But that isn’t a tech solution; it’s a process solution. Which is why I have struggled to write about how IoT will help us with COVID-19 when we return to the office.
It may help. There are a lot of really interesting ways we can use data and sensors to ensure that occupancy rates stay below 50% or that employees stay 6 feet apart from one another; they could even be used to develop AI that can detect coughs and sneezes in the workforce. I’ve seen half a dozen systems that check people’s temperature when entering a building, although those systems have their problems.
I spoke with the CEO of a company called Density, which uses door-mounted sensors to track the number of people in a room or building and issue alerts if that number exceeds a specific amount. According to CEO Andrew Farrah, demand for this setup is incredibly high, and it has advantages over cameras in that it protects people’s privacy.
There are ceiling-mounted sensors, such as those from Enlighted, that can track occupancy as well as social distancing. Enlighted CEO Tanuj Mohan says companies can also use its system as a way to offer exposure notifications as it can track individuals walking around the office using Bluetooth signals.
Speaking of Bluetooth, Estimote, which makes Bluetooth beacons, has built new wearables to both enforce social distancing rules and identify individuals for exposure notification purposes. Bluetooth mesh company Nodle has signed a deal with Avnet to sell a similar device aimed at warehouse and office workers.
There are literally dozens of other examples of technology being adapted for the new office reality post-COVID-19, but so far none of them address the need for new processes on the part of employers. For that, we need managers who understand what the business is trying to accomplish with its measures and who has the power to enforce them. For example, does your business want to push social distancing? Prevent sick people from entering? Does it need a way to notify other employees if someone gets a positive diagnosis?
Before investing in any sort of IoT, companies need to figure out what their goals are, then deputize individual employees who can enforce those goals. Those people should be involved in choosing the technology in conjunction with their IT department and anyone in upper management that needs to sign off on it. And once the tech is installed, companies will need to invest in programs that educate employees about that technology, in particular what its role will be going forward.
So IoT can help, but it’s not magic.