Many reopening businesses will be asking workers to take coronavirus tests, report symptoms, don masks, wear dongles, and work under the gaze of new sensors and cameras.

James Temple, MIT Technology Review, May 22, 2020

A day in the life of Salesforce workers will look very different when they return to the software company’s offices.

The San Francisco–based business says all of its 49,000 employees can continue working from home for the rest of the year. But as regions relax stay-at-home rules and the company reopens in phases, employees who are cleared to return will start their day by logging online for a daily wellness check.

They’ll be asked things like whether they’re experiencing any potential symptoms of covid-19 or have been in contact with anyone infected. If they're cleared, the app will assign them a 30-minute window arrival time, designed to avoid employee bottlenecks at the elevator banks.

“We realized almost right away there was a choke point, and that was the elevator,” says Elizabeth Pinkham, head of global real estate at Salesforce. Staggering arrival times for the company’s employees, who number more than 8,000 in San Francisco alone, was “the only way we’d be able to manage this giant Jenga puzzle.”

Employees will have to wear masks as they enter the building, take their temperature at a touchless kiosk, and swipe an ID badge that grants them access to floors and elevators. It will also note where they set foot, and by extension whom they may have interacted with, in case they do later turn out to have covid-19.

In the elevator, a sign will remind them not to talk to the few other employees allowed in the car at the same time. Finally, they’ll arrive at a freshly disinfected desk, where adjacent rows have been removed. There, they can finally take off their mask and get to work.

Welcome to the coronavirus-era workplace.

As regions tiptoe toward reopening their economies, businesses of all sorts are grappling with how to redesign their spaces, alter their procedures, and implement new technologies to keep their workers healthy.

Companies are spacing out desks, plucking out conference room chairs, installing antimicrobial surfaces, adding thermal scanners, altering air-conditioning systems, putting down floor markings, and mandating rigorous cleaning protocols. And some are going further still: offering or even requiring coronavirus testing for workers returning to the office, and employing sensors, dongles, and other tools to ensure they remain a safe distance apart or inform them when they’ve crossed paths with a colleague who later learns he or she was infected.

The success or failure of these workplace experiments will help determine how safe reopening really is, and how quickly the economy could get back on track. But the radically redesigned workplaces will also raise concerns about employee privacy and may pose legal liabilities when workers do become seriously ill despite the precautions.

Sensors, dongles and touchless tech

Autodesk, the design software company based in San Rafael, California, has also said that employees can continue to work from home for the reminder of the year. But after offices meet local requirements for reopening, it will begin slowly bringing workers back, likely prioritizing job types that require hands-on work like robotics programming, machining and 3D printing.

The company was on the verge of opening a new 115,000-square-foot space in San Francisco when the outbreak reached the US. It’s now planning to use that space as a pilot lab for coronavirus-inspired office configurations, procedures and touchless technologies, where it will test ideas that could be implemented across its offices, says Stephen Fukuhara, vice president of workplace and travel at Autodesk.

The business is considering many of the same concepts as Salesforce, including symptom self-reporting, temperature checks, and spaced-out desks. It’s also trying out several new technologies, including self-sanitizing doors developed by Hacka Labs.

In addition, Autodesk is evaluating new ways of using tools from San Francisco–based VergeSense, which develops sensors and software that analyze the movement of workers around offices to evaluate real estate needs or the availability of desks and rooms.

VergeSense chief executive Dan Ryan says the products can now also be used to spot situations where workers are getting too close to one another, either to alert managers when it happens or to signal that they should alter the space to prevent it. He says nearly all the company’s customers, which include Genentech, Roche, Cisco, and BP, are exploring using its products in this way as they prepare to reopen.

Other companies are looking into whether additional technologies can be used to encourage or ensure social distancing in workplaces. Possibilities include lidar systemssecurity cameras coupled with artificial-intelligence software, or wireless dongles that workers wear around their necks.

One business, Estimote, has developed wearable devices that vibrate when workers get too close. They also take note of the interaction in case either of those employees ends up testing positive. If a worker is infected, other employees that person came into close contact with are notified and may be asked to quarantine themselves, according to the company’s online marketing materials.

Salesforce’s Pinkham says they’ll use badge data along with a new company product, Work.com, as a sort of workplace contact tracing tool and response plan if employees do become infected with the coronavirus.

Without revealing health information about specific employees, the company will let other workers know if they’ve been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive and will ask them to work from home for two weeks. The company will also ensure the infected employee gets appropriate care, notify other workers who were in the building and temporarily close down part or all of the office in question.

Salesforce began offering Work.com, which includes a suite of tools and information designed to help companies reopen, to its customers in early May.

Offering—or requiring—tests

Even with new tools and procedures, bringing together large groups of people in the coming weeks and months will create the risk of workplace outbreaks.

Given the clear finding that people with covid-19 can be highly contagious even if they display few or no symptoms, a growing number of companies and health experts argue that reopening plans must also include wide-scale and continual testing of workers.

“It’s less a question of if testing becomes a part of workplace strategies, than when and what will prompt that,” says Rajaie Batniji, chief health officer at Collective Health. Measures like temperature checks may even do more harm than good by giving workers and employers a false sense of confidence, he says.

The San Francisco company, which manages health benefits for businesses, has developed a product called Collective Go  that, among other things, includes detailed health protocols for companies looking to reopen. Developed in partnership with researchers at Johns Hopkins, the University of California, San Francisco, and elsewhere, the guidelines include when and how often workers in various job types and locations should be tested.

Their modeling found that symptom and temperature screening alone leaves a 90% chance of workplace outbreaks, whereas the use of masks, social distancing, routine testing, and other measures in the company’s protocol pushed it below 5%.

The Collective Go product includes apps that allow workers to schedule tests, which are administered or processed by the company's diagnostics partners.

Only a handful of US organizations have openly said they intend or want to directly provide coronavirus testing for employees at this stage. These include AmazonMajor League Baseballseveral Las Vegas casinos, and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

But recent trade group surveys found that large fractions of employers are considering onsite testing (about 25%, according to the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable) or are already offering it or evaluating whether to do so (36%, according to the Pacific Business Group on Health).

Color, a diagnostics company in Burlingame, California, that’s processed about a third of San Francisco’s covid-19 tests, has secured deals to provide testing for nearly two dozen companies at this point, says Caroline Savello, the company’s chief commercial officer. (The Morehouse School is the only customer the company will disclose.) Some intend to offer their employees voluntary testing; some will require it as a condition of returning to the workplace, she says.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that employers can require testing, as long as the tests are accurate and reliable and are administrated equally.

Color already tests its own lab workers and intends to regularly test all of its 150 or so employees as they return.

The new work world

What remains to be seen is how workers themselves respond when employers direct them to take tests, disclose symptoms, don masks, wear dongles, and work under the watchful eye of sensors monitoring their temperature or proximity to colleagues.

Certainly, many will see these measures as necessary and temporary trade-offs to protect their health, as well as that of their coworkers and community. But grumbling and protests over the civil liberties burdens imposed by stay-at-home orders suggests that plenty of others won’t.

Companies will at least need to carefully limit the use of data, protect the health privacy of their workers, and roll back measures as the outbreak recedes.

But striking the right balance will be a continual struggle as infection levels shift, health fears ebb and flow, and employees grow increasingly weary of this austere new work world.