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For HR, future of work now includes contact tracing

A return to work means managing COVID-19 infection risks. HR is getting tools to help accomplish this management, as well as an app to automate contact tracing.

Technology is arriving to give HR departments tools to manage COVID-19 risks in the workplace. This includes knowing the testing status of employees.

A three-part virus management process for HR is also emerging. Employers may need to know an employee's testing results and have a means to verify them. They'll want to integrate the data with HRIS systems to connect it with employees. And they may want a way to automate contact tracing in the case of a workplace infection.

But these systems raise privacy and security issues for employers.

Mass testing of COVID-19 infections brings a need for HR tools to manage this information in the enterprise. Public health authorities could issue a testing status certificate, which could reside on a mobile app, or on paper, clearing people for work.

The certification would be time-bound, said Amitabh Chandra, a professor and director of health policy research at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

"At the very least, I'd think that we want weekly testing," Chandra said in an email. He and two others outlined the proposal in a recent Harvard Business Review piece.

The app glows green

"Test negative and get a code," Chandra said. "Punch it in, and the app glows green for a week. In a week, you need another code."

Ryan SandlerRyan Sandler

Employers will want to find ways to manage employee COVID-19 status information, said Ryan Sandler, co-founder and CEO at Truework, an employment and income verification platform. 

Truework plans to soon release a dashboard listing the infection status of employees.

The dashboard is integrated into HRIS systems, such as those from Workday and SAP SuccessFactors, and information from those systems will help populate the dashboard. Employees can then provide a PDF or a screenshot of their testing results. The firm is also working on getting agreements with testing labs, and, with the employee's consent, will directly verify test results.

Truework COVID-19 dashboard
The dashboard from Truework illustrates a COVID-19 testing status of employees.

"We're going to need some type of process or plan of who comes back to work -- and who can't," Sandler said. The dashboard will be free to use, he said. 

Even with employee testing data, there is still a risk of workplace infections.

For that problem, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) plans to release a contact tracing app for employers next month. This tool will keep a record of an employee's location in an office or factory. It will gather data on their proximity to other workers and the amount of time spent with them.

Employees install the app on their smartphone. The tool uses Bluetooth on employee phones to gather data on contacts as well other office networks, such as WiFi, to help get an accurate employee location. The tool is intended for use in work interactions.

If contact tracing becomes necessary, HR managers will be able to use the app to see the employee's contacts over two weeks or more as needed. The contact tracing app will assign risk factors -- high, medium and low -- to those interactions. If an employee reports an infection, the tool gives HR the means to quickly rewind the infected employee's contacts and alert affected parties.

Infected employees will be sent home, but employer responses to workplace infections vary widely. Multiple infections have resulted in plant closings, but other firms have managed with cleaning and social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines a range of responses for employers.

Contact tracing app assigns risk

If an employee spends a lot of time sitting next to someone in a meeting room, it can mean high risk. But a quick chat in the hallway may be assigned a low probability, said Rob Mesirow, leader of the PwC Connected Solutions and IoT practice.

Rob MesirowRob Mesirow

Without an app, contact tracing could be a low-tech undertaking. HR employees will have to spend hours on the phone with the infected employee trying to trace the employee's contacts, Mesirow said. "It usually takes several days to do a single trace," he said.

There is considerable debate about how to bring people back to work. Most controversial is whether employers should conduct antibody testing, indicating possible immunity.

Germany, for instance, has been looking into the idea of "immunity certificates" or "immunity passports" for people with coronavirus antibodies. Those who are granted a certificate or passport could return to work.

One person skeptical of the approach is Henry Greely, a law professor at Stanford University who directs the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences.

The only people "we can even hope will have that immunity," at least until a vaccine, are those who were infected and recovered, Greely said. Even then, it's uncertain if they are immune, he said.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) Friday warned against the "immunity passport" approach. The international public health organization said there is "currently no evidence" that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection. 

Testing certificates will be valuable

A lot of questions remain about antibody testing and its reliability. Greely worries about the security of systems that are used to manage the testing results.

"I think when people have an incentive, almost anything can be faked or hacked," Greely said.

Guidance on how employers should move forward with antibody testing is murky. For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said last week that employers will be able to test employees for COVID-19. But it was silent on antibody testing.

It's "still an open question" about whether antibody testing is something employers should do, said Michael Oliver Eckard, an attorney at the labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins. In the absence of clear guidance, it might be best for employers to wait for the CDC, and other health authorities, to make recommendations on this testing, he said.

Alla ValenteAlla Valente

Alla Valente, a Forrester Research analyst, has concerns about employee privacy. How should contact tracing data, for instance, be saved and stored, "and what other purposes will that data be used for?" she asked.

I really do struggle to understand what this means for my own personal privacy.
Alla ValenteAnalyst, Forrester Research

Adapting to COVID-19 will have a broad impact on work. Forrester is advising that employers bring back workers in stages to reduce the health risk to other employees. Other steps may include increasing physical distance between workspaces and limiting the number of people attending in-person meetings.

"I really do struggle to understand what this means for my own personal privacy," Valente said. Does "this become the new normal: That I'm able to be traced no matter where I go or who I come in contact with?"

How employers respond remains to be seen. Some may want employees to return to the office, and require testing, but others may leave the work-at-home option in place for those who still want it, Valente said.

If employers want to implement employee tracing, it has to be voluntary, Valente argued. They will also need to provide clear employee communication about what they are doing with the data they collect.

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