The last time you were in your office, who did you walk past in the lobby? Stand next to in the elevator? Chat with in the kitchen?
You’re not alone if you can’t remember each of those encounters. But that is exactly the sort of information employers want to have on hand, in case an employee catches the coronavirus.
Some companies that are preparing to welcome employees back to the office are planning to use technology to monitor their movements at work. While the technology may be more precise than human memory, it raises fears about greater surveillance at work — and whether employers would relinquish that power after the health crisis subsides.
One company that has begun to use such tools is PwC, the big accounting and consulting firm. It has developed an app that tracks how close employees get to each other by noting their smartphones’ Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals.
The app allows the company to do contact tracing — the process of identifying people who may have been exposed to the virus. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, he or she notifies human resources. Using data from the app, PwC can identify other employees whose phones came close to the infected person’s phone in prior weeks. Then, the human resources staff notifies those people that they may have been exposed to the virus, so they can stay home.
The app only monitors people when they are on company property, said David Sapin, a principal at PwC who worked on the app. It does not track employees outside of work.
PwC is only using the app in Shanghai, the firm’s first location to reopen since the pandemic. Employees there are required to use it when in the office. Sapin said they are still debating whether to make it mandatory in all offices as they reopen.
“In order for us to protect all of our employees, I think we need to make sure that we have solutions like this in place and that they’re as effective as they can be,” Sapin said. “And if that requires mandating it, then I think we need to mandate it.”
PwC is pitching the tool to other companies that are trying to figure out how to bring people back to their workplaces safely. And it’s not alone. Businesses are considering all sorts of technology.
“I have been busier these past two months than I think I have ever been in my professional career,” said Jarrod Easterwood, director of marketing and partner relations at Ohio-based Avuity. It makes occupancy sensors and software that monitor how many people are in offices.
There is a lot of pressure on companies to get this right. To lure teleworking employees back to the office, they must convince them that it is safe to return. But there are also concerns about liability. If someone gets sick at work, or spreads the virus to colleagues, that could be expensive and damaging for an employer.
“This is the new normal of protecting employees’ safety,” said Dennis Kwan, CEO of TRACEsafe, which makes badges that monitor employees’ location and proximity to one another. “It’s just like [having] a safety policy … just like sexual harassment policy, [like] child safety policy.”
Of course, public health officials are also trying to figure out ways to contain the virus as states ease their stay-at-home orders. Like PwC, some government agencies are working on apps to track whom people who get Covid-19 have come in contact with.
But there’s a big difference: in the U.S., the government cannot force people to use these apps. Companies, on the other hand, can require employees to do so.
“Employers really have carte blanche in terms of the policies they can institute, in terms of the technologies that they can employ,” said Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor of labor relations and law at Cornell University.
Even before the pandemic, more and more companies were monitoring their employees through their phones and computers, Ajunwa said. She worries that once companies start using tracking technology, they have little incentive to stop.
“The fact that you already have limitless worker surveillance and then you’re instituting these new, more intense surveillance without any limits … that doesn’t give me confidence that these measures will go away … ever,” she said.
PwC’s Sapin said he sees the tracking app as something that a firm could toggle on when there’s a health crisis, such as a bad flu season, and then off, when the risk fades. But ultimately, the power to use the app would be in the employer’s hands.