E-Handbook: AI tools and technologies reshape workplace planning Article 3 of 4

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Guest Post
This article is part of our Essential Guide: Workforce strategy and planning in times of crisis

Balancing safety and privacy with social distancing technology

As companies look to employ technology to help office workers maintain social distance, we need to look at whether this could result in a loss of privacy as these tools become the norm.

You arrive at your workplace to wait in line for a screening questionnaire and a temperature check. Your attendance is recorded through facial recognition software. To enter the building, you have an RFID chip on a lanyard that opens the doors. If you need to take the elevator, you enter your floor number in a smartphone app and stand on a marker facing the elevator wall. Those same digital badges detect density and prevent accidental gatherings, while thermal sensors that monitor body temperatures are capable of issuing real-time alerts.

At your workstation, you're physically separated from co-workers by barriers, and new contactless software eliminates the need to touch surfaces. The coffee machine is voice-command activated and employees might be asked to affix the very low-tech Post-it note to the restroom door when they enter, so it is easy for others to count how many are in the bathroom.

This is the new -- and totally unfamiliar -- reality of work in the post-pandemic era. At the time of writing this, over half of businesses that have been closed or partially shut down have planned to reopen by the end of summer, although most of those have not set a specific date. Some will phase in the return, bringing in critical teams first.

Not everyone is going back yet, though. One of the most effective ways of staying safe is staying home and working remotely. The SHRM mid-May survey showed that 68% of organizations plan to offer broader and more flexible work-from-home policies.

That requires a whole new set of technologies to support productivity, collaboration and reporting. But those who do return to their workplace will see changes that go beyond hand sanitizing, surface disinfecting, distancing markers and plexiglass barriers and masks.

Social distancing technology can lead to positive and negative effects

All businesses -- manufacturers, offices, storefronts, hotels, airlines, realtors and event operators -- will need to take measures to protect employees, customers and guests. Much of that protection is available through workplace technologies like the ones previously mentioned. There are likely more solutions to come, especially here as the U.S. tries to face down the COVID-19 infection crisis. It's crucial that returning workers feel safe in the workplace.

"The Internet of Things (IoT) will play an important role in this new normal and that will push its adoption in a lot of technologies that already exist," said Sanjay Gupta, vice president and India country manager, NXP Semiconductors. Devices and sensors that reduce the need to come in contact with surfaces (especially those normally touched by several people), alert individuals when they're too close together, track body temperature and even restrict entry to buildings if the devices detect a fever, will help manage the safe return to work.

When you go back to work, you will have to adapt to the increased use of technology around you. And that raises the issue of privacy. Contact tracing through smartphone apps are meant to ensure adequate testing and quarantine of infected people. But they also track all movements. People will naturally distrust the collection, use and storage of location and other personal data through corporate surveillance. While employers in most countries can use these methods to protect workplace safety, employees won't necessarily be able to opt out of the new work experience -- aside from those protected through disability regulations.

"Hundreds of companies a week, three times their normal interest, are now asking about using the employee surveillance tools," according to Brad Miller, chief executive of Awareness Technologies.

Could these tracking technologies become permanent? As vice president of security, privacy & compliance at global customer insights software firm Vision Critical, William Sweeney asks, "What if people become numb to tracking/surveillance/oversharing? Privacy lost during this pandemic can remain privacy lost indefinitely, and those who permit temporary measures may unknowingly be permitting permanent surveillance."

Trading data privacy for job security may be a short-term reality, but the long-term repercussions could be significant. As competing employers offer more flexible work arrangements and geographic proximity is less important for various roles, workers concerned about security and convenience will move.

How can employers balance workforce safety while protecting privacy rights?

First, transparency is critical. Organizations need to clearly indicate that the use of thermal sensors, digital badges and similar surveillance tools are solely for health safety purposes and not for personal data tracking.

Second, employees will closely watch how talk matches reality. If safety is paramount, will increases in cases result in office closures and a return to remote work? Will proper distancing, sanitization and thermal scanning be enforced? Will it come to light that employer-provided smartphones trace not only contact for COVID-19 purposes, but for individual whereabouts?

Third, analytics should be used to help determine return-to-office mandates. Comparing productivity numbers pre-COVID against recent results should be the barometer for how important in-person office work is to results. A strong case can be made to exclude data from March, April and May in any analysis given the significant jolt dealt to employees surrounding the pandemic, social injustice events and the sliding economy. If measured productivity in June and July by role is not materially impacted by where work occurs, we should strongly consider giving employees continued options. This will go a long way to showing concern for workforce safety, protecting individual privacy rights and providing the flexibility employees now come to expect.

Keeping employees safe in the office is critical

Technology is a critical tool in helping to contain the spread of the disease and keeping workers safe. But even with the best intentions, invasive technologies in the workplace can easily become the norm. The way we work is becoming hardly recognizable. Let's assure we're using these technologies carefully so our concern for employee wellbeing doesn't become unrecognizable, too.

About the author
Scot Marcotte is the chief technology officer at Buck, an integrated HR consulting, technology and benefits administration services firm. For 29 years he has helped organizations solve human resources challenges through the strategic use of data, communication and technology. He holds a certified employee benefit specialist (CEBS) designation, has co-authored a book on employee engagement, was named Xerox's innovator of the year and is a regular presenter at global HR conferences.

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