Returning to Work in the Era of COVID-19: What to Consider Before Investing in Technology

As we start to send employees back to the office, the factory, the warehouse and the retail store, there is a lot of pressure on IT teams to implement new technologies like thermal imaging/ temperature screening, employee tracking and contact tracing to help keep employees safe.

At Barcoding, we believe in an approach called PPT—process, people, technology. The idea is that process improvements and user involvement are critical to every successful technology implementation. Even though IT teams find themselves under pressure to implement COVID-19 response-based technologies quickly, this PPT approach should not be abandoned.

The PPT process begins with asking, “What is the root problem you are trying to solve?” Over the last few months, we have been fielding customer’s questions related to COVID-19, such as, “What solutions do you have to capture employee temperatures?” and “What solutions do you have to ensure employees do not come within 6 feet of each other?”

While these are fair questions, we believe they are inadequate, as they are not addressing the root of problem. The root question should be, “As America goes back to work, how can we help keep our employees and customers safe?

Before you select a COVID-19 related technology solution, we recommend the following:

  • Think long term, not reactionary
  • Review the processes involved
  • Research user perspectives—involve users early and often
  • Establish leadership and executive buy-in—know your budget

Think Long Term, Not Reactionary

While COVID-19 is top of mind, this is not first time that a natural or man-made event has changed our lives and it will not be the last. Thinking long term allows you the opportunity to view the current crises from multiple angles and often creates opportunities to resolve existing issues and prevent future issues at the same time.

As for COVID-19, this is not the first time we have seen business disruption and employee health concerns. We have government health regulations across many industries including hospitality, restaurant, farming, and manufacturing to address many common health issues and, at the same time, these regulations are not complete or foolproof.

For example, everyday, employees go to work with colds or the flu. While not as contagious as COVID-19 these events often result in other employees being affected and lost productivity, increased medical costs, and a decreased quality of life. Ask yourself, “What other issues can we prevent or resolve?

Review the processes involved

Once you define the root business problem to be resolved, begin by evaluating the current processes to identify how they may be improved or expanded upon. In some cases, the answer may simply be: we do not have a process in place. In other instances, the existing processes lack adequate data to be effective, or disparate processes may need to be connected. Understanding the current state enables you to envision and create the future state and identify the technologies that are required to support each process.

Research User Perspectives—Involve Users

People are the second element of every solution. Like processes, you need to understand each employee’s role, duties, workflows, and other requirements placed on them. Requirements can vary widely by role, but often involve time commitments, environmental concerns, and unique skillsets.

Understanding what makes your people tick and how to motivate them,in addition to supporting process and technology investments that increase productivity, are critical to ensuring future success. At Barcoding, we believe the people on the line are the most critical success factor in any project. Gathering their input, including them in decision making and gaining their buy-in is essential.

Establish Leadership and Executive Buy-in—Define Your Budget

IT cannot drive solutions alone. Business organizations look to IT to investigate technology solutions and that one of IT’s roles. However, many business organizations do not take the time to completely understand their root issues and, as a result, IT spends time researching technologies that do not address the real business issue or cannot generate the desired return on investment (ROI).

For this reason, it is imperative that organizations establish project leadership and executive buy-in before IT is sent out on a fishing excursion. Using the PPT process, the project team can identify the root problem and establish a ballpark budget to help IT narrow its focus on technologies that directly address the issues at hand.

Considerations Specific to COVID-19

For detailed information on wide variety of COVID-10 related topics, please visit the CDC website. The information provided below is an example of the topics that the CDC addresses on this matter. The full report is available here.

Exposure risk among manufacturing workers

Distinctive factors that affect workers’ risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in manufacturing workplaces include:

  • Distance between workers: Manufacturing workers often work close to one another on production or assembly lines. Workers may also be near one another at other times, such as when clocking in or out, during breaks, or in locker/changing rooms.
  • Duration of contact: Manufacturing workers often have prolonged closeness to coworkers (e.g., for 8–12 hours per shift). Continued contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
  • Type of contact: Manufacturing workers may be exposed to the infectious virus through respiratory droplets in the air—for example, when workers in a plant who have the virus cough or sneeze. It is also possible that exposure could occur from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as tools, workstations, or break room tables. Shared spaces such as break rooms, locker rooms, and entrances/exits to the facility may contribute to their risk.

Other distinctive factors that may increase risk among these workers include:

  • A common practice at some workplaces of sharing transportation such as ride-share vans or shuttle vehicles, car-pools, and public transportation
  • Frequent contact with fellow workers in community settings in areas where there is ongoing community transmission 

Controls

  • Create a COVID-19 assessment and control plan
  • A qualified workplace coordinator should be identified. This person will be responsible for COVID-19 assessment and control planning. All workers in the facility should know how to contact the identified coordinator with any COVID-19 concerns.
  • Worker infection prevention recommendations are based on an approach known as the hierarchy of controls. This approach groups actions by their effectiveness in reducing or removing hazards. In most cases, the preferred approach is to:
  • Administrative controls, which are changes to the way people work, are also an important part of an approach to prevention in these workplaces.
    • Engineering controls
    • Cleaning and disinfection in manufacturing
    • Screening and monitoring workers
    • Managing sick workers
    • Personal protective equipment
    • Workers’ rights

Solutions

For those of you that just want to know what temperature and proximity solutions are available, there are many and described below. However, the common element across all of these products is that they do not address the root question of going back to work safely, as none of these solutions address all of the issues associated with this issue. At a minimum, multiple solutions will need to be used in tandem with one another and you still need to address elements such as employee training, employee privacy, environmental concerns, and ultimately, the fundamentals behind PPT.

Temperature sensing solutions:

Employee temperature capture is one frequently discussed method to help identify ill employees. There are a wide variety of methods and solutions available to capture employee temperatures. Entry-level solutions are as simple as a drug store infrared thermometer and note pad or Excel spread sheet, while high-end camera systems are at the other end of the spectrum. When evaluating temperature-sensing solutions, you should consider the following:

  • Employee volume: how many employees are you monitoring and over what time period. Large manufacturing plants with hundreds or thousands of employees will likely require automated high volume solutions in order to reduce the time it takes employees to be processed, while companies with limited staff may be able to achieve the same results with a manual process.
  • Environmental variables such as limited entry points: Automated temperature monitoring solutions are only effective if everyone uses them. As a result, these systems typically require being installed at check points that require all employees to pass through.
  • Reliability: Good data requires consistent and accurate readings. Ensure that the technology is tested and proven and on a diverse user population.
  • Data retention: Do you need to retain the collected data? Lower cost solutions provide a simple Go/No Go alert. If you need to capture and archive each event for historical purposes, make sure you invest in technology that can store and retrieve event logs. Additionally, define what level of data needs to be stored, such as employee name, picture, temperature, and a date/ time stamp.

Proximity Sensing Solutions:

Proximity sensing and contact tracing solutions are another frequent request. Over the last 60 days, the market has introduced a wide variety of proximity-based solutions as well. The majority of these solutions rely on some type of wireless radio technology, such Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Wi-Fi and other proprietary wireless technologies. The majority of these products are derivatives of solutions that were originally designed for goods tracking, such as containers, pallets, machinery and other physical assets. When evaluating temperature sensing solutions, you should consider the following:

  • People: Proximity solutions require that each employee maintain some type of “tag” in order to be located within the facility, as well as their position among the larger population. These “tags” are typically worn on a lanyard, belt, or wrist, however, some solutions may leverage employee tools, such as a cell phone. This is where using the PPT process will help ensure that the desired technologies do not interfere with employee tasks or protective gear and define the additional processes required to ensure that employees properly utilize and maintain the new equipment.
  • Infrastructure requirements: The majority of sensing solutions require a network of “readers” to identify the location of each “tag.” These networks vary in size, complexity, accuracy, and cost depending on the underlying wireless technology used. What each of these networks have in common is that the infrastructure must be installed and specifically tailored to each environment to meet the proximity needs of each application.
  • Alerting: While all proximity-sensing solutions can track employee movement, not all provide employees with audible, visual or vibration alerting capabilities when a proximity event occurs. Going back to the root problem, are you looking to inform employees of proximity events in real-time, or are you looking to identify issues and manage them at a later date?
  • Contact tracing: Alerting employees to real time events can be a helpful training aid. The next question to ask is, “What do you do if an employee becomes ill?” Contact tracing takes the sensing solution to a deeper level by capturing each proximity event by employee and storing this event data so that it can be reviewed at a later time to identify all employees that may have come in contact with the ill employee. If contact tracing is a business requirement, then the proximity sensing solution must be able to capture and maintain employee event data over time.

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, and play. It’s greatly impacted businesses in a multitude of ways and we need to take the time to analyze existing processes before we can return to work and create a new normal.

While addressing these critical business issues, Barcoding recommends reviewing how your people have been impacted by COVID-19 and working with them to create a plan that will address both current and future interruptions before implementing any new technology. Once you’ve consulted with your people and have the right processes in place, only then can you begin to choose the right technology solution for your company.