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Millions of workers in recent months have returned to offices outfitted with new pandemic protocols meant to keep them healthy and safe. But temperature checks and plexiglass barriers between desks can’t prevent one of the most dangerous workplace behaviors for the spread of covid-19 — the irresistible desire to mingle.
“If you have people coming into the office, it’s very rare for them consistently to be six feet apart,” said Kanav Dhir, the head of product at VergeSense, a company that has 30,000 body heat sensors deployed in office buildings around the world tracking worker whereabouts.
Since the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, the company has found that 60% of interactions among North American workers violate the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s six-foot distancing guidelines, as do an even higher share in Asia, where offices usually are smaller.
Most people who can work at home still are and likely will be until at least mid-2021. But as some white-collar workers begin a cautious return — executive recruiter Korn Ferry found about 20% of employees expected to be back in offices after the U.S. Labor Day holiday — it’s becoming clear how hard it is to make the workplace safe. A bevy of sophisticated sensors and data are being used to develop detailed plans; even IBM’s vaunted Watson artificial intelligence is weighing in. In many cases the data can only verify what should be evident: The modern office, designed to pack in as many workers as possible, was never meant to enforce social distancing.
To date, the coronavirus has infected more than 8 million Americans and is blamed for 220,000 U.S. deaths. So far, efforts to get large numbers of workers into the office haven’t worked out very well. Some workers at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. tested positive after they returned to work and were sent home. With infection rates rising again nationwide, many companies have told most employees to work from home until next year, or even forever. Michigan’s governor approved new rules last week that bar employers from forcing workers back to the office if they can do their job at home.
For those employers pushing ahead with a return to the office, sensors that measure room occupancy are proving to be a necessity, said Doug Stewart, co-head of digital buildings at the technology unit Cushman & Wakefield, which manages about 785-million-square feet of commercial space in North and South America. Most offices are already fitted with sensors of some kind, even if it’s just a badging system or security cameras. Those lagging on such capabilities are now scrambling to add more, he said.
The systems were used before the pandemic to jam as many people together in the most cost-effective way, not limit workplace crowding or keep employees away from each other, Stewart said. With that in mind, companies can analyze the data all they want, but changing human behavior — we’re social creatures, after all — is harder, he said.
Because office crowding can show up in air quality, proper ventilation has replaced comfort as the focus for building managers, said Aaron Lapsley, who directs Cushman’s digital building operations with Stewart. Measuring the amount of carbon dioxide or the concentration of aerial particles can determine if airflow needs to be adjusted — or whether some people need to be told to leave a specific area. Employees are now more likely to use smartphone apps to receive alerts and keep tabs on the health and safety of the building, he said.
Something even as trivial as a trip to the bathroom or coffee machine has to be re-examined, said Mike Sandridge, executive director of client success at the technology unit of Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., which oversees about 5-billion-square feet of property globally. Some restrooms have had to be limited to one person, and a red light will come on to let others know whether it’s occupied, based on stepping on a switch. When it’s free, the light turns green. Companies can also monitor whether the snack area is getting crowded, he said.
To help get some of its 350,000 employees back to its 150 offices around the world, IBM Corp. is using its problem-solving Watson AI to analyze data from WiFi usage to help design and adjust office occupancy, said Joanne Wright, vice president of enterprise operations.
Understanding worker habits is more useful if you have a way to nudge them into new patterns. Since the pandemic began, Radiant RFID LLC has sold 10,000 wristbands that vibrate when co-workers are too close to each other. The technology was originally designed to warn workers away from dangerous machinery, not other people. So far, the wristbands are responsible for reducing unsafe contacts by about 65%, said Kenneth Ratton, chief executive of the company, which makes radio-communication devices. At this point, the data on more than 3 billion encounters shows the average worker has had about 300 interactions closer than six feet lasting 10 minutes or more.
“The biggest problem is we as Americans haven’t really been socially distanced, ever,” Ratton said.
Nadia Diwas is using another kind of technology: a wireless key fob she carries in her pocket made by her employer, Semtech Corp., which tracks her movements and interactions — making it useful for contact tracing if someone gets sick, which is as important as warning people they are too close. The technology originally was developed by Semtech to help devices such as thermostats communicate on the so-called internet of things.
The reality is that people still need to work together, and if you’re back in the office, that means face-to-face interaction, said Diwas, who works in an electronics lab with two and sometimes three other people. She said she comes in contact with more people at the grocery store than in the office.
“It does make me more aware and more careful,” Diwas said in an interview. “The way I picture it in my head is that if both of us stretch our arms out, we should not touch each other.”
For most office workers, the best way to keep a safe distance from colleagues for the foreseeable future will still be on Zoom.