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Pandemic effects on HR tech: Hits, misses and what's next

Pandemic effects on technology of importance to HR are still unfolding. It's not yet known how employers will learn the vaccine status of their workers.

The pandemic's next big impact on HR technology may be an electronic certificate with proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Canada is considering such a move.

If people don't want a vaccine, "that's their choice," said Christine Elliott, the Ontario health minister, in a press conference last week. But "there may be some restrictions that may be placed on people that don't have vaccines -- for travel purposes, to be able to go to theaters and other places," she said. 

It's unclear whether the U.S. will adopt an electronic vaccination certification program. The federal government has largely left adoption of pandemic technology up to the states, including the adoption of contact tracing and notification apps. Less than half of states currently offer them, and, for the states that do, only a small percentage of constituents use them, according to one study.  

Some businesses and large institutions, especially universities, have adopted COVID-19 notification tech alerting people to potential virus exposure. Other public technology approaches may have helped businesses with a return to work plan but didn't gain traction, such as the pitch from researchers at Harvard and other universities in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

They suggested that public health authorities issue time-bound COVID-19 certificates with regular testing intervals as often as weekly. That way, employers could keep tabs on the testing status of workers, but the idea never took off.

A less aggressive tech approach

"I don't know if there was a regulatory wedge to sharing this data," said Amitabh Chandra, a professor of public policy and director of health policy research at the Harvard Kennedy School. "But in general, we did not use all the technologies available at our disposal."

Some countries embraced technology to fight the pandemic, notably South Korea. That nation "used surveillance camera footage, credit card purchases and smartphone locations to trace COVID-19 patients to stop the spread," said Sarah Kreps, a professor in the department of government and an adjunct professor of law at Cornell University.

"The U.S., which after 9/11 was willing to suspend civil liberties for several years for counterterrorism, has not approached measures that these other democracies have been willing to take," Kreps said.

In the first few months of the pandemic, vendors began releasing contact tracing apps and wearables for businesses. Some approaches to contact tracing use Bluetooth wireless technology to keep records of contacts.

If an employee has been in contact with an infected worker, the tools analyze the length of time of the potential exposure and the proximity to the employee and then rate the risk of infection. In some cases, HR may alert the employee of a risky encounter. HR can download data from these contact tracing apps and use it to notify other employees of a risky contact.

"I don't know of any companies that are using that," said Chad Sorenson, the HR Florida State Council president-elect, about the use of contact tracing apps by employers. The council is a professional organization that represents 14,000 small to midsize firms and organizations in the state. He is also president of Adaptive HR Solutions, a consulting firm.

Sorenson said larger companies that have the resources to manage contact tracing technology are more likely to adopt it. But he also sees the employee privacy concerns as an obstacle to business use.

"You start to run into issues of how much tracing and tracking are you doing of an employee's movements in or outside of the company, during working hours or outside of working hours," Sorenson said.

Tech is limited by polarization

The biggest impediment to contact tracing apps is privacy concerns, said Scott McPherson, CIO of the Florida House of Representatives. He believes these apps will face resistance, in much the same way mask wearing has.

"I don't see a bright future for contact tracing apps in this polarized environment," McPherson said.

Contact tracing apps were designed to limit the spread of the virus. But public adoption is low, according to an analysis this week by the Associated Press. New York launched its app Oct. 1, and about 5% of the population has downloaded it. In some other states, adoption ranges from 1% to 3%, it reported.

"Every little bit helps, but it is not clear to me that adoption is high enough to be making a huge difference right now," said Lorrie Faith Cranor, a professor of computer science, engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

California released its notification app, CA Notify, on Thursday. It uses Bluetooth to exchange random codes between phones "without revealing the user's identity or location," according to the state. App users who receive a notification from a lab of a positive COVID-19 test will enter a verification code in the app. Any other app users who were within six feet of the COVID-19-positive person for 15 minutes or more -- when that person was most likely infectious -- will be notified of their exposure risk.

Where this notification technology may be having its best success is on college campuses. 

The University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University have adopted this decentralized anonymous notification technology. Collectively, they have 50,000 app downloads, and 47% of infected people interviewed by campus contact tracers have reported downloading the app, according to Joanna Masel, a professor in the University of Arizona's ecology and evolutionary biology department who is involved in the project.

Biden's plans are unclear

President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 response, so far, has focused on wearing masks and vaccine availability. His pandemic impact plan includes a promise of 100 million vaccinations during his first 100 days in office.

But Biden has not outlined a technology approach to the pandemic or made clear if his administration would consider a national electronic vaccination certificate similar to Canada.

What people can expect is a low-tech, traditional approach -- a card documenting their vaccination. 

The cards will be issued after the initial vaccine shot and will be needed to get the second vaccine shot. Constituents can digitize on their own, if they so choose. Arkansas in its vaccination plan, for instance, encourages people to "take a picture of the vaccination card with their phone so they will have it available in the event that the card is misplaced," according to a state planning document.

The vaccination card is not being touted as proof of vaccination.

Pandemic will reshape offices

If the vaccine does allow workers to return to the office, the pandemic's impact may be evident in office technology.

"The office has forever changed," said Brandon Cook, founder and executive director of Workplace 2030, a nonprofit in San Francisco that focuses on finding ways to bring employees safely back to the office. Project collaborators include Accenture; Gensler, a global architecture firm; Condeco Software, a workspace scheduling technology firm; and Proxy, which makes tools for touchless access.

Automated health check technology
Technology that automates health checks in a secure and private manner may become more common in offices.

Working with an epidemiologist, the firms created a physical showroom providing the types of technologies and office designs influenced by the pandemic. It is also available for a 3D tour.

Workplace 2030 organizers see the pandemic effects on the workplace as lasting as the effects of the Bay Area's 1989 earthquake.

"After that [earthquake], every single office or school or home was never built the same way again," Cook said. It led to more stringent earthquake-resistant building codes, he said. Similarly, with the pandemic, "everyone's going to want to create an office that can adapt to this happening in the future," he said.

The vendors collaborated on the design. They installed air purification systems and touchless technologies allowing employees to operate doors with a smartphone wave.

They also included a "health screening lounge" for health checks. Some of the pandemic's makeshift practices involved taking temperatures in public spaces, such as building reception areas, which shocked Cook.

"Outing somebody as potentially COVID-infected in a public space is so inappropriate," Cook said.

The office design assumes many employees won't work in an office full time.

In this model, sensors in desks indicate occupancy and alert cleaning crews that it's time to sanitize a workspace. "We want to make sure we are not oversharing those resources in a way that's not unhygienic," Cook said.

Next Steps

New COVID-19 HR tools: AI office design, vaccine management

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