Workplace track and trace has lift off?

As many countries gradually begin to emerge out of lockdown, technology companies are clamouring to produce bespoke track and trace systems for the workplace.

Government mandated track and trace systems are working with varying levels of effectiveness around the world - with South Korea appearing to lead the charge while the UK is trailing somewhere miserably round the back. Reasons for these differences are numerous, and often political, but also largely hinge on factors like tech infrastructure, logistical planning and attitudes to privacy.

In the workplace the benefits of tracking have long been touted and often theoretically aligned to all kinds of personalised IoT services such as bespoke temperature settings in meeting rooms. To the cynical, these often just looked like ways to keep tabs on what staff were up to, but the reasons these plans have not reached fruition to date, are largely the same reasons that government-level track and tracing systems have proved unsuccessful.

Now the Covid-19 crisis provides an excellent reason to get track and trace up and running at a workplace level. This has many advantages for organisations as it provides an ultra-local way to help contain the spread of any infection, could offer additional peace of mind to employees - and thus act as a sort of advertisement for best-in-class companies - as well as minimising staff absences to reduce economic fallout from the crisis.

Not surprisingly, since the pandemic began - and even more so now lockdowns are easing - technology companies have been pivoting to provide these solutions. Broadly, these tend to fall into a few different categories, namely: self-assessment tools; wearables to reinforce social distancing; and physical office solutions. Semi-medical equipment, like thermal scanners, also sometimes get included here, as they can be employed at a company level. However, these are not covered in this article.


Self-assessment tools

Self-assessment tools sometimes integrate with HR solutions and provide employees with the chance to fill in relevant details on how they're feeling, their medical history or relevant skills.

Worcestershire County Council in the UK, for example, has launched five new apps as part of its "Here 2 Help" COVID-19 response program. These apps were designed, developed, and deployed extremely quickly and allow employees to do things like rapidly inform the HR team about any underlying medical conditions that could put them at an increased risk of complications from the virus and alert the council to any previous care or volunteer experience.

Another example, which has been developed by Riskex in partnership with Rackspace, aims to determine whether employees are fit to return to work. This collates data from regular employee health assessments which ask questions around how an employee is feeling, whether they are experiencing symptoms and if they have been tested.


Wearables for social distancing

By far the largest area of tech-enabled track and trace for the workplace, though, is in wearables. These sometimes integrate with existing IoT systems or beacons but are commonly just standalone radio devices. A comprehensive white paper from IEEE Access, updated at the end of May, looks at the role of new technology in managing the pandemic and particularly calls out Estimote's contact tracing wearable.

The Estimote wearable uses a passive GPS location-tracker, Bluetooth powered proximity sensors, ultra-wideband connectivity, built-in LTE and a rechargeable battery to scan for other nearby devices and record any interactions. It also includes LED indicators and buttons which enables employees to log their real-time health status in a central database that stores information for up to six weeks. All this aims to help employers to monitor and curb the spread of infection.

Estimote is just the tip of the iceberg, though, with numerous other systems emerging. Eq-Wave from Equivital does something similar with ultra-wideband radio and Bluetooth technology to detect other devices and measure the distance between them. Pathfindr, an Internet of Things business which usually supplies companies like Rolls Royce with asset tracking, has also recently developed a radio-based wearable.

The Kinexon Safezone sensor worn on an employee's wrist warns if they are within 1.5m of another person. Each sensor is registered in the system with a unique ID but is not assigned to a specific person. This is currently getting trialled by 140 individuals who volunteered to return early to HR company, Personio's, Munich office.

In a slightly different iteration, US company, Polte has launched a contact tracing and social distancing solution using their Cloud Location over Cellular (C-LoC) technology. This connects to ubiquitous 4G LTE and 5G cellular networks and cloud computing infrastructure to contact trace employees wherever they are, with no need to install beacons or other infrastructure.

Many companies will inevitably be jumping on this particular bandwagon over the coming weeks and months, but while the IEEE Access paper points out that wearables have a significant role to play in the current pandemic, they also contain certain challenges and limitations. These mainly centre on limited battery life and lack of established guidelines on data privacy, which can also result in additional security concerns. There may also be ongoing problems with supply chains, even as lockdown measures continue to lift.


Physical office solutions

Solutions are also appearing to demarcate the office for social distancing. One interesting example is Freespace, a UK-based technology company providing workplace sensors, digital signage and data intelligence, which recently launched a social distancing solution to support businesses with the phased return to work. 

This offers a wide range of tools including something to calculate the optimal numbers for an office space, based on AutoCAD integration blended with flexible algorithms, then aligned with local social distancing rules. This information is then translated into digital signs, so employees know which desks are available for use, on a given day.

It also includes desk sensors to capture occupancy in real-time, based purely on the presence of a person. This is contact free and includes a simple app that works in conjunction with location tags to reassure employees about the history of desks, including usage and cleaning, before they arrived.


Legal challenges with track and trace

Track and trace is always going to come with challenges and Anna Elliott, Partner at International law firm Osborne Clarke raises a few particular concerns especially in regard to data privacy. She stresses that although companies may be able to lawfully require the download of a specific track and trace app it will need to comply with health and safety obligations along with data protection guidelines.

Of course, systems vary and not all do require the download of a particular app. However, the same data rules apply.

"Imposing such compulsory conditions upon employees' return to work will need to be carefully managed to avoid any breach of data protection laws or other employment claims, for example constructive dismissal for breach of trust and confidence. It will therefore be important to have a legitimate basis and strong rationale for doing do," says Elliott.

Track and trace is always going to feature privacy concerns, due to the fundamental necessity to collect data. Ultimately it will be up to individual companies to do their due diligence on any system they choose to implement, mitigate the risks and navigate the thorny path between keeping alert to Covid-19 and setting employees' minds at ease.