Insight Blog

Workplace Distancing via Technology

Workplace Distancing via Technology “New normal” is a phrase becoming more common as organizations adapt to a changing cultural climate. The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is showing signs of diminishing, leading many offices, schools, and job sites to reopen physical spaces. What does this mean for end users?

According to a U.S. survey conducted by COMMERCIALCafé, a commercial real estate internet listing service, 80% of respondents wanted to see some changes to the safety and comfort of their office upon returning to work. The survey, which polled 2,600 individuals in early May, asked about both short- and long-term changes.
More attention to cleaning and sanitizing ranked first with mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE) second. An interesting third response was technology that encourages social [physical] distancing. 

The recommended physical distance of three to six feet was determined by studies of respiratory physiology. It allows for a personal breathing zone that limits the mix of inhaled and exhaled air. As this safe space is enforced in many public and commercial locations, the use of technology can aid in maintaining that distance. Here are seven ways leaders can—and have—implemented technology into physical spaces: 

Collaboration platform for co-workers

While traditional servers allow for VPN (virtual private network) access of shared files, some organizations have turned to web-based collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, or Google’s G Suite. These options are not limited to remote work and will likely remain important as people return to office settings. Chat and call features reduce face-to-face interactions and the ability to edit files simultaneously may reduce the need for workplace meetings. In fact, there seems to be an emerging trend that facilities leaders have technical knowledge and/or the ability to cooperate with tech departments to maintain and implement new systems.

Virtual public and private meetings

With gatherings of large groups discouraged in some states, it is expected that sizable staff meetings, board meetings, and industry conferences may remain virtual for the next nine to 12 months. Technology allows for live and/or recorded access to town hall meetings, group discussions, and presentations and lectures. Video conferencing platforms offer the ability for facilitators to share slides and multimedia clips and even allow participants to submit a question or “raise a hand” to speak. Even when events are virtual, there is a need for facilities professionals to help orchestrate events and prepare hosting locations.

Key fobs and sensors to gauge foot traffic

Some commercial spaces have reduced occupancy limits to promote physical distancing. Because this can be difficult to measure, the use of key fobs may become more prevalent, allowing facilities managers to digitally monitor the amount of people in a space at any given time. Interior doors and doors to cafeterias, kitchens, and restrooms may also have sensors applied. This aids in contact tracing so areas can be cleaned and disinfected in a manner proportionate to their use.

Touchless faucets

Hard surfaces in shared spaces are notoriously conduits for germs. Recent attention has been on the virus that causes COVID-19. Initial reports showed it remains on surfaces for several hours to days. Although transmission through surfaces is much less likely than other forms of contact, the CDC recommends proper handwashing after touching a possibly contaminated surface. As faucets in common areas see greater use, touchless technologies can greatly reduce the chance of transmission. What may have originally been installed in a facility for convenience or water conservation (lower flow rate) now plays a greater role in cleanliness practices.

Material handling solutions

Some hospitals, schools, and manufacturing facilities use material handling robots to transport shared items. Meant to relieve personnel from routine delivery tasks that take time away from more pressing responsibilities, the robots are now effectively minimizing person-to-person contact.

The approach may be too significant an investment for some facilities departments; however, the concept can be simplified by creating a “drop zone” for items such as paper files, office supplies, computer equipment, and tools to be exchanged.

Devices for virtual inspections

While construction projects in some states came to a halt, others continued with virtual interactions where possible, including virtual inspections. A Construction Dive article about the way the crisis is changing the industry reported that a general contractor in Nashville, Tennessee submitted 360-degree photos and videos to the local fire marshal.

Other cities and counties actually require a live walkthrough of the space. For example, Arlington County in Virginia conducts building-related inspections by a County inspector using a video call on a smart phone or tablet. Customers are asked to begin at street view, facing the structure with the address showing and walk the inspection in a clockwise direction from bottom to top floors. With drive time eliminated, the virtual method allows for more specific scheduling, prompt service, and productive follow ups.

Programs and apps to measure safe distance

In late April, iinside released a safe distancing technology. The company, known for providing indoor motion analytics for airport checkpoints, applied LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology to their traditional offering. Invisible laser beams detect spacing between people at movement and at rest. Venue and facilities managers can be alerted if over-crowding is expected.

One month prior, Triax Technologies developed a physical distancing variation of their Spot-r tag, which can detect and locate workers who experience a fall on a jobsite. The new Proximity Trace tag clips onto any hardhat and beeps when it detects another tag nearby. Also an IoT (Internet of Things) device, it logs encounters with other tags and reports them to a web-based portal upon entrance to the site. Additionally, the tag helps with contact tracing, or retracing points of contact with others, in the case that a worker tests positive for coronavirus.

On a smaller scale: Most Apple and Android app stores feature free measuring tools that utilize a smart phone’s camera to determine approximate distance. These can be helpful when situating furniture in a lobby, reception area, conference room, or work station. (Of course, so can a tape measure.)

What changes or improvements has your department made as part of the “new normal”? How have end users reacted? Let us know on LinkedIn!