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Will Apps and Portals Someday Control Your In-Office Experience?

There’s been a rapid rise in technology able to assist companies digitally manage everything from social distancing strategies to mask compliance. Are apps the answer to a safe return to the office?

Pre-vaccine, with COVID-19 cases again on the rise, welcoming workers back to the office —and meeting any state or potential upcoming federal safety mandates—may require new heights of vigilance and organization. From scheduling which employees come in and where they’ll sit to maintaining necessary safety and sanitary guidelines, the burden placed on employers and employees alike has drastically grown. 

Enter the latest class of work-focused apps and portals. Digital management just might be the best solution for handling a slew of new protocols, from planning staggered working hours to facilitating the completion of health questionnaires before entering the office. Screenings, density checks, distancing monitoring, mask compliance—as the saying goes, yes, there’s an app for that. And it’s all too easy to imagine seamlessly ceding control of other amenities and conveniences, from lighting and temperature control to workplace catering, right over to an app.

So what digital applications have the potential to land on your smartphone’s home screen or influence your company’s decisions to bring you and your colleagues back? Here’s a few universal issues offices face and a look at the app-based emerging technology seeking to offer solutions: 

Reservation-based apps can control and optimize who’s in the office and where

Scheduling the use of conference rooms isn’t new, but an array of new desk reservation technology extends the idea out to every square foot of the workplace. There’s no shortage of apps primed to take on this challenge, either. A few options include AgilQuest Forum, Freespace, Modo, Teem, iOffice and Spacewell (and that’s not even an exhaustive list). 

Many of these apps existed pre-pandemic, but a sudden flip to a more distributed workforce across all sorts of industries makes their use more directly relevant, even essential. And some of the newest features are distinctly COVID-19 driven. For instance, beyond dynamic desk booking and room reservations, certain apps from the list above offer the option to check to see if a workstation has been cleaned prior to use, allow for physical occupancy location tracing and non-invasive contact tracing, plus let users track the precise whereabouts of colleagues and teams. And many are able to integrate with widely-used programs like Slack, Microsoft Exchange or Google Calendar, and can even work alongside, say, a smart-building system sensor to analyze occupancy and utilization in real-time. 

Beyond the day-to-day conveniences these apps can offer, the broader implication is that companies will be able to collect meaningful data that clearly demonstrates their employees’ behavior and spatial needs, allowing them to make strategic decisions that may lead to reconfigurations or broader changes to the office’s physical footprint.

Apps connected to sensors and surveillance cameras can track density, distancing and even mask compliance

Smart sensors like those of Israeli company PointGrab, developed pre-COVID-19, have the ability to record the exact number and location of people in buildings. Deloitte, one of the company’s earliest major clients, installed the sensors (which are similar in size to smoke alarms) at its flagship London office last year. The information gleaned, among other built-in “intelligent building” strategies, reportedly helped Deloitte fit 30% more people into 3% less space. The company’s sensors are also already utilized in the offices of major corporations like Coca-Cola, Facebook and Dell. And this year, PointGrab’s technology has evolved so that their sensors can also monitor social distancing by keeping track of how far apart people are, with the option to set up alerts for when two people are less than six feet apart for more than 30 seconds, for instance. If this level of monitoring seems concerning, it’s worth noting that no images or identifying features are recorded. Each employee is represented as an anonymous dot.

Camio, a tech company founded by former Google executives, takes a similar tact, using image-detecting software that works with existing surveillance cameras. The platform anonymously tracks people as they move on a virtual 3D floor plan—analyzing movement without storing any personally identifiable information—tracking how close together employees are and whether they’re masked. “Fortunately, we could adapt technology previously developed to detect unauthorized access to buildings to perform mask and social distancing detection,” says Camio CEO Carter Maslan. “It’s simply another application of the same technology, but we added special machine learning classifiers to detect people with and without masks.” He notes that this year, businesses of all types and sizes have used Camio to ensure employee and visitor safety as well as business continuity. There’s even gyms using Camio to stay open during COVID and to operate their unattended front desks 24/7. 

Maslan sees broader applications for his company’s software as well. “For smaller office environments, cameras are eyes when you’re not there,” he says. “You can be alerted when a package arrives, see who’s coming to the door, and even let them in for deliveries remotely—all through any web browser. I think these, as well as more standard security functions, will become even more important over the next decade as we live our lives in a much more fluid and mobile way.”

ROOM’s latest product, Room Sense, also laces in more tools to inform companies about density and usage by acting as a sort of Google Analytics built directly into its meeting rooms and phone booths, tracking how many people are meeting in a space, when those meetings occur and more. And the bottom line with any of these products is the more we know about how an office is actually being used, the better the response can be to make it safer, smarter and more streamlined as workers return.

Apps can assist in the reduction of common office touchpoints

Voice-activated devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa are common in the home, but haven’t crossed over into modern offices, yet there’s an argument to be made for their usefulness. Perhaps one of these devices will helm ‘intelligent’ meeting spaces, responding to employee voice commands to adjust light, temperature, sound or display screen technology. Some large-scale collaboration devices like the Microsoft Surface Hub 2 already have a hands-free setting that responds to speech built in. But no matter how exactly voice activations are employed, their use drastically reduces the amount of common switches, buttons, knobs, remotes and more that employees touch. Additionally, voice assistant apps might help manage a meeting schedule, arrange a Zoom call or even order catering. Many smartphone ‘assistant’ apps already have these capabilities, but applying them more widely to company matters versus individual needs would be a natural extension of this technology.

And of course, there’s a range of existing sensory products that can further reduce workplace touchpoints. Doors can pivot to auto-entry. Common spaces like kitchens and bathrooms can go touchless via hands-free soap dispensers, auto-flushing and touch-free dryers or paper towel dispensers. Homeowners and corporations have already taken note, as major bath and kitchen appliance maker Kohler has seen a 100 percent increase in sales of its touchless bathroom products this year. 

It’s clearly a boon that many of these apps and products already exist or are simply adding relevant features in response to the times. As a result, companies can turn their attention to the tactical deployment of the right combination to keep their teams safer when, and in however manner, their employees return to the office.