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AI will power a safe return to the workplace. Here’s how

(Image credit: Image Credit: Coffee / Pixabay)

Just imagine your first day back to the office after months of isolation: Not only are you potentially exposed to the virus on your morning commute, but you’re then presented with crowded elevators. As you enter the floor, you notice door handles that have likely been touched by dozens of others right before you, and confined workspaces that make it too easy to breach social distancing protocols. It’s hardly a situation that would put your mind at ease, let alone one that would help you to get back into the swing of working in the office.

That’s why it’s vital that organizations take strict and cautious measures when welcoming

their teams back into the workplace. What many businesses don’t realize is how artificial intelligence (AI) can power more general health and safety protocols to new heights. The technology can allow teams to gain the benefits of in-person collaboration in the safest possible way. Here’s how.

AI allows you to schedule who comes back, and when

So, you’re planning to invite your workforce back to the office. Understanding what is the most effective way to organize who comes in, on what days, and for how long is a complex task - especially if you have more than 50 employees. Here’s where AI-powered scheduling and planning tools come in.

Organizations must first understand the work activities, nature of employee assignments, kinds of customer interactions, meeting schedules and the list of people who are expected to collaborate on-site.

You must combine this with an assessment of the risk level for each employee. This could include factors such as their extent of exposure at work, the kind of workspace, and the level of physical contact needed with the general public. It could also feature the employee’s home location, age, pre-existing conditions, and anything else that could be (ethically) used by employers to safeguard them and their teams.

Machine learning can use these factors to balance work criticality with risk levels and help chart out a back-to-work schedule. The algorithm can help plan schedules within the day by factoring in permissible capacity in the typical workplace choke points. This includes locations such as the elevator or areas used for social gatherings that can be high-risk areas within an office.

You must continuously fine-tune these plans based on shifting organizational priorities, effectiveness of virus control and governmental guidelines for businesses. This McKinsey report outlines the risk factors of different types of workplaces and can be a useful point of reference.

AI lets you ensure safety protocols are followed

Business as usual is long gone. Being around coworkers once again will not come with the luxury of huddling together around the coffee machine or sharing crowded tables in the cafeteria. Now, social distancing is non-negotiable while at work. How can AI help ensure the safety of employees while they are in the workplace?

AI can help businesses process data from mass temperature screening of employees and customers as they enter the facility. Canadian company PredictMedix offers its AI-powered temperature screening technology to help retail stores prevent the spread of Covid-19.

AI-powered computer vision tools can automatically monitor the workplace to ensure people wear a face mask and maintain social distancing with their co-workers. AI startup DatakaLab uses the security cameras from the Paris Metro system to check whether passengers are wearing face masks. These systems avoid the controversial element of facial recognition technology by anonymously detecting whether a person is wearing a face mask. Any violations can be reported to the administration team to let them identify and take appropriate corrective action.

This technology can be extended to detect when social distancing is being breached within the office. LandingAI has developed an AI-enabled tool that analyzes real time video streams to estimate the distance between people which can be used to instantly identify violations. Many organizations are exploring the use of IoT-powered wearables that alert users when they get too close to each other. Organizations can analyze data from these to understand the locations in the office and the kind of situations that lead to protocol breaches.

While physical health and prevention of the spread of the virus must be a priority, it’s also vital to help employees maintain their mental wellbeing in these tough times. AI-powered solutions can analyze text messages to identify potential indicators of stress, depression, or anxiety. For example, StatusToday’s AI solution connects to email, chat, and communication systems within organizations to identify employees that could be on the verge of burning out.

AI drives recovery planning

No matter how much you prepare, strategize, and plan for a safe return to the workplace, there will always be the likelihood of infection until the virus has been fully defeated. With the help of AI, how can you put in place the right processes to deal with the eventuality of team members testing positive for Covid-19?

Contact tracing solutions can help you get visibility into the movement of employees within the workplace using wearables, biometrics, or access cards. In case an employee gets infected, you can then identify the colleagues that had close contact with that person. Contact tracing can help you identify and quarantine at-risk employees rather than having the entire workforce operate remotely.

Despite all the measures to reopen offices, the likelihood is that a sizable portion of your workforce will have to operate remotely in the coming months. You must continue to leverage data analytics and smart collaboration applications that facilitate remote work to ensure high  productivity levels within your remote teams.

AI has serious potential to facilitate a safe return to the workplace, be it an office, warehouse, or retail store. However, one common thread that runs through all these initiatives is the concern over the level of data collection and monitoring that’s necessary for their functioning. While this a legitimate concern, these initiatives must be viewed in the context of the pandemic and what’s necessary to fight it. If companies and employees want to ensure safety while avoiding any form of data collection, then we may not have credible options to get back to work.

The reality is that judgement calls must be made on the extent of data collection without compromising on the health and safety of employees. While we’ve presented some technology options at our disposal, each organization must decide on what’s right for their culture and based on norms in their country. 

What’s critical is that you are open and transparent with your employees on the level of monitoring and the ways in which the data is used. Follow best practices, collect the data in good faith, and commit to lowering the extent of monitoring once risk levels go down. In the meanwhile, AI might just be the thing that not only allows your team to survive, but thrive, throughout the remainder of the pandemic.

Ganes Kesari, co-founder and Chief Decision Scientist, Gramener