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Digital safeguarding of physical workspaces can help employees return to 'normal'

Employees across all sectors are putting their trust in data – not just devices – upon their imminent return to physical workspaces

Physical workspaces are set to undergo a digital transformation over the coming months. While this trend has been on the cards for some time, few predicted that health and safety would be the prime accelerator towards its adoption.

Following months of lockdown, furlough and remote working, the notion of returning to actual places of work is starting to be realised. Across corporate office workspaces and industrial settings, people are tentatively leaving the comparative safety of their homes to co-mingle with others just like the “old days”.

To do so, organisations across the board are having to alter how these workspaces look and operate. Regulations regarding social distancing and general hygiene, for example, have dominated discussions around this return. However, the conversation has very quickly elevated beyond that tick-box adherence.

As a nervy workforce walks towards the front doors once again, and with the looming knowledge that further shutdowns could cripple businesses for good, companies can no longer treat safety as an addendum.

Instead, it’s been moved to the top of the priority list, out of manual hands and into the safe clutches of digitisation. It seems the best way to save our physical surroundings is with technology.

Inspiring confidence to return

From an industrial perspective, the emphasis has been to get ahead of the game, as described by Eric Stoop, CEO at Ease – a US-based digital auditing company that has worked with the likes of Aston Martin, Continental and Brose to make their plant floor activities as efficient and dynamic as possible.

“Traditionally, our auditing solutions are brought in when an element of quality in a manufacturing plant isn’t up to scratch. They look to audit that process, find a solution and improve upon it,” says Stoop.

“With the situation we have here, you can’t watch people failing to socially distance, or not wash their hands, and then instigate solutions to deal with that. By the time you do, the site may have already been shut down due to an infection.

“The risk is too high, so we’re seeing preventative action being taken now to prepare their workspaces for this new norm – with data and digital monitoring of these activities serving as the control centre.”

In the office, IT services provider Cognizant’s digital transformation proposition is also coming into its own as workers return to shared locations. Associate vice-president Euan Davis has found there is an appetite to return to work, but, again, only if it’s proved safe to do so.

“This element of assurance is where the digital conversation has been accelerated,” he says. “Before, it was a C-level discussion and decision. Then, as Covid evolved, it became a regulatory requirement. Now, as workers are faced with the proposition of returning, it’s a personnel issue.

“Companies have to inspire a confidence to want to come back. In offices this doesn’t just implicate their desks, but lifts, lavatories, canteens. They want to see tangible evidence that their safety is being taken seriously, and technology is as comprehensive way as possible to do that.”

Smart buildings: from sustainability to safety

This isn’t to say that conversations around digital transformation weren’t happening prior to the pandemic. However, the reason for that conversation, and the resultant levels of action being taken, have changed dramatically from Cognizant’s vantage point.

“We often speak about levels of automation, the internet of things (IoT) and the use of data in workplaces. Developments that we thought were three to five years away are happening right now, showing how profound Covid’s impact has been in regard to safety,” says Davis.

Developments that we thought were three to five years away are happening right now, showing how profound Covid’s impact has been in regard to safety
Euan Davis, Cognizant

Davis says that even as recently as nine months ago, the primary driver of this “long-term strategy” was sustainability.

Smart buildings are the ultimate aim, and what we’re accommodating with many clients right now,” he adds. “But the reasons for this transformation to smart buildings have changed. Now it’s safety, whereas before it was all about consumption, efficiency and sustainability.

“Essentially it was a facilities management issue at the time, driven by C-level conversations in an attempt to become more compliant and efficient. Now it’s employees driving the vehicle towards smart-building functionality, and I would say that’s here to stay.”

A dashboard outweighs the devices

Essentially, Cognizant is optimising IoT to help clients provide a safe workplace for employees to return to. While the physical process includes the use of certain devices – sensors, wristbands, temperature screening – it is the culmination of IoT that is proving most significant. In essence, the priority is to collate all data and, most importantly, share it with employees.

Davis says: “We approach our conversations with clients with three distinct strands at the moment: the smart-building platform, a partner ecosystem that we bring to clients, and the privacy and regulatory considerations that need to be there too.”

The former leverages a common data environment and visualisation dashboard to integrate data from devices. This informs what the average – often subconscious – workflow looks like, in order to think about safety measures and solutions in a holistic way.

“The ecosystem side of things involves looking at those technologies that provide the data,” Davis adds. “These can include thermal cameras, facial-recognition technologies, wristband sensors – an entire infrastructure that would inform how close people are getting to each other, whether they’re sanitising appropriately, what their temperatures are, how well-ventilated the space is, and so on.”

The third leg ensures that the ecosystem of devices doesn’t overstep the mark of privacy or security.

Davis says: “This three-pronged approach in regard to smart buildings is really the right solution at the right time. We’ve spoken for so long about IoT, and finally it’s time has come. The devices will differ from office to office in terms of what’s required, but the core component is that dashboard, which serves as a control centre for all those connected bits of data.

“From a technological standpoint, it’s obviously progressive, but what that dashboard really provides at a time like this is transparency and assurance. It tells workers that their employers are monitoring their safety, and you can see it for yourselves on this visible and transparent platform.”

Overcoming industrial resistance

Over to the industrial realm and Ease’s digital auditing proposition has found its calling in a similar category to Cognizant’s data-centric dashboard solution – that is, the “peace of mind” category.

However, this notion is taken up further notches across areas of manufacturing and construction in particular, courtesy of a much more entrenched resistance to digitisation.

As Stoop explains, the past few months has not only shaken many out of that stubbornness, but has shifted technology’s role from “if I must”, to “I must have”.

“We have provided plant floor insights and data to manufacturers for the past four years, ensuring proper practices and deliverables are met,” he says.

“Taking our relationship with Aston Martin as an example, they have touch screens at every station of the assembly line to facilitate optimal working for each person. It’s not an inspection activity regarding the products, but a data-driven analysis of processes and people that make those products.”

Ease’s cloud-based solution had already gained mass traction around the world alongside major heavyweight operators, off the back of its ability to enhance operations. Safety was always a part of that audit, but not necessarily the prime parameter.

“Jump ahead to early 2020, though, and safety is now the main driver of data analytics that companies are looking for, to come back online,” Stoop says.

“It’s now about ‘is there enough hand sanitiser at each station?’, ‘are people taking their temperatures?’, ‘are visitors being screened and monitored properly?’. Safety auditing has become the most critical use case for our technology, almost overnight.”

Tracking safety

A significant aspect of this industrial uptake is that productivity and safety are not mutually exclusive.

The fear of shutting down factories again, as the result of an avoidable infection incident, would be too much for many small and medium-sized organisations.

That concern has already changed the way that many sites work. Whether it’s moving from two shift patterns to three, or spreading the assembly line out, or by removing overlaps across changeovers, it’s all about containment and risk reduction. And data can inform those decisions more accurately than any C-level executive.

“An infection genuinely could destroy a lot of companies after the year they’ve had,” Stoop says.

An infection genuinely could destroy a lot of companies after the year they’ve had
Eric Stoop, Ease

“It’s absolutely changed where ‘safety’ sits on the priority list. The safety component of our audits is, purposefully, a bit overkill in normal times, to ensure we have all bases covered. But notions of temperature screening, improved ventilation, cleaning rotas, hygiene monitoring, sanitation, and spatial awareness aren’t overkill anymore. They’re vital elements of the new-look workplace that need to be optimised and tracked.”

As such, that traditional resistance to digitisation is disappearing. It’s no longer a decision made among executives to seemingly undermine manual experience. It’s being done for employees themselves, so they feel safe enough to return to work.

Comfort through communication

The digital safeguarding of physical workspaces is critical in bringing workers back to both offices and industrial workspaces. It’s a route to compliance amid new Covid-driven regulations. But after a year in which many people’s lives and norms have been shaken, it’s a source of comfort and trust that will be much needed.

For both Cognizant and Ease, the focus isn’t inherently on the proposed devices or safety measures, but the way that the data from those devices is analysed, communicated and shared. Many workers won’t be favourable to the idea of wearing digital wristbands, or having sensors and cameras pointed at them.

It is the data component that converts this from being a daunting Big Brother exercise to being a trustworthy strategy with personal safety at its core.

“You can have all the kit and the devices, but the important part is how you extract meaningful data out of them, and how you share it within the organisation in a way that instils confidence in such surreal times,” says Davis.

“For a while now, companies have been diving into the realms of artificial intelligence or IoT without any real holistic strategy, let alone communication. What people need now is one source of truth that is readily available to all.”

Stoop agrees: “With IoT and the resultant source of data, companies can explain why every bit of technology is being implemented – not just to make their jobs easier, but to make them feel safer at a time where people feel inherently unsafe.”

Industry 4.0, at last

Despite years of promised digital transformation across all sectors and spheres, it perhaps seems odd that it could be notions of ventilation, spatial awareness or washing your hands that triggers its implementation.

It sheds light on the employer-employee dynamic that was always there but was never given room to breathe. It’s the people on the ground – on the plant floor, or at their desks – that will determine whether companies come out of 2020 stronger or not.

To jeopardise their safety is to jeopardise the organisation’s recovery. And as those same people finally open up to the possibility of digital assistance, a proper transformation can take place.

Industry 4.0 has always felt like a bit of a false dawn,” Stoop says. “It seemed easy as it was the connection of devices and equipment. But it forgot about the people. By not addressing the needs and wants of workers themselves, Industry 4.0 could never really flourish.

“Now, against the odds, it isn’t productivity or sustainability that’s proved to be the kicker, but safety. It seems so simple now. And if organisations can ensure, and then prove, that workplaces are safe once again, then workers will have the confidence to return.”

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