How tech can help improve office safety

With many people returning to the office, it's vital that employers improve workplace safety. Here's how they're doing that by using technology and innovation.

Millions of people are heading back to their place of work as lockdown restrictions ease. But while businesses are returning to some degree of normality, that doesn't mean coronavirus has disappeared and they no longer need to take steps to protect their employees.

From imposing social distancing rules to setting up track-and-trace systems, there are a number of things businesses must do to ensure the workplace is safe for returning employees. Although that won't be an easy task, lots of employers are turning to technology and innovation to protect their staff amid the global pandemic.


New innovations

In these challenging times, many technology companies have developed new devices to protect employees in the workplace. For example, IoT firm Pathfindr offers a wearable that enables businesses to enforce social distancing rules more easily.

The small device, which is worn around the neck or clipped onto an item of clothing, warns users when they are too close to another person in their workplace. It alerts them via a beeping sound and enables users to change the precise distance.

Ben Sturgess, co-founder and chief technology officer of Pathfindr, says: "Not only are the devices able to reduce risk of human error over social distancing, they also take the pressure off when it comes to confronting people about getting too close - users simply move away when they hear a beep."

Meanwhile, telecoms giant Vodafone has teamed up with Digital Barriers to develop a heat detection camera that ensures anyone entering buildings is healthy and doesn't pose a risk to others. Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business UK, explains that the device "combines thermal imaging and Vodafone's IoT connectivity to screen the temperature of people as they enter buildings, and give easy, instant access to results through the IoT platform."

She adds: "Screening up to eight people at a time and one hundred every minute, the camera itself incorporates both thermal and HD cameras that deliver reliable, real-time body temperature screening accurate to within +/- 0.3 degrees Celsius. There are no additional IT requirements so cameras can be set up easily without disruption in almost any location."


Tech saves the day

The events of the last few months have been nothing short of extraordinary, transforming the way that thousands of businesses operate. For many employers, they've had to implement a range of different measures to boost security and hygiene across their teams.

Jake Third, managing director of digital marketing agency Hallam, says: "We started reopening our offices last week, with many of the security measures that we've become familiar with - hand sanitiser, no use of the kitchen, spaced out seating, etc. However as our business employs more than 50 people, we also needed to make sure we could implement our own ‘track and trace' system, should anyone get symptoms or test positive for coronavirus."

Thanks to freely available online tools from Google, Hallam was able to set up a track-and-trace system easily and quickly. "As a result, we've created a Google Doc that every employee must fill in before going into the office, so we're able to know exactly who to tell to isolate should anything happen," he says "This has helped the rest of our staff to feel more comfortable  in returning to the office - although we do still recommend working from home for the foreseeable future, we understand that some may work better in the office environment."

Erica Wolfe-Murray, an innovation expert, agrees that businesses can utilise different technologies to improve workplace safety. For instance, she points out that many are "reducing shared touch-points such as premises' key pads, lift buttons, toilet flushes by replacing with RFID, app/facial recognition or infra-red sensors using electromagnetic fields."

She also notes how remote working technology can be reused in the office. "With fewer meetings being undertaken, all the work-from-home technology that so many have used to work successfully from home will be effectively incorporated into workplaces and flows," explains Wolfe-Murray. "Improving computer hardware to ensure employees' safe working now they will be engaging more with colleagues and clients through screens, rather than in meetings, should not be overlooked."


The power of IoT

After months of working remotely or being furloughed, some people may find the idea of returning to their workplace stressful. But Christina Colmer McHugh, co-founder of wearable tech company Woodbeam, believes that the Internet of Things can be used to support employee mental health.

"Without a doubt, the last six months have been an incredibly stressful and uncertain time for everyone. Combined with social restrictions and mass job losses, the coronavirus pandemic has had a serious impact on people's mental health, so employers should be ensuring that the welfare of their staff is a priority," she says.

"Through the use of connected health technology, people can gain insight into highs and lows over time, showing patterns and trends that can support positive change and can be shared with colleagues, family or friends. Its real time self-reporting can easily feed into employee engagement strategies."

Chris Ibbitson, chief technologist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, also takes the view that connected technology can be utilised to protect the health and safety of employees in the workplace.

"IoT solutions that encourage social distancing, enable contact tracing, touchless entry, fever detection, and augmented reality already exist and are becoming the underlying fabric for how we bring our society and our economy safely back to life," he says.

"For example, heat mapping can help businesses measure employee traffic so shared spaces, like cafes, have the right density planning, or proximity alerts to notify the organisation or employee if social distancing can't be maintained. Similarly, by deploying AI enabled thermal cameras to measure body temperature, organisations can reduce the risk of spreading the virus and ensure a hygienic and secure entry for employees."


Cyber threats

But it's not just physical safety that businesses must address; there's also been a massive increase in cybercrime during lockdown. Although it's fair to assume that businesses are more secure when their employees are in one place, these threats won't simply vanish overnight.

Rich Turner, senior vice president of EMEA at CyberArk, says: "Now that organisations are moving back to the office, the danger is that both employees and security teams will assume they are returning to a ‘secure' environment again."

"Many organisations have opted to make the transition in phases, with half of staff working at the office and half at home. With employees accessing information and assets from both within and without corporate networks, this brings challenges of its own.

Consequently, employers will need to remain vigilant and take steps to mitigate increased online threats. Turner adds: "Security teams must apply the right level of authentication and security controls to individuals based on their role, what they need to access, and how long they need to access it for. The most rigorous security should apply in determining whether to grant privileged access to critical data and assets to returning employees."

Regardless of industry, all businesses and their employees have been impacted in some way by the coronavirus pandemic. Although it's great to see things getting back to normal, employers should continue to do all they can to support their staff and ensure the workplace is safe.