At some point, an effective coronavirus vaccine could fully reopen the world’s schools, workplaces, cultural sites, and public places. But one thing won’t change back. The pandemic has permanently changed the nature and landscape of work, and both employees and employers are already adjusting to this new reality.
Technology plays a central role in this new normal, which will change definitions of the workplace, both remotely and on the job site. Today, more people work remotely than ever before, and the majority of them want to continue in a hybrid model of remote and in-person work. And employers’ new strategies are in alignment with the new expectations of the workforce. To prepare for the new normal, companies have redirected investments from bigger office spaces and on-site support to new technological solutions to allow for resilient, safe, and productive work environments. And government agencies, too, have to adjust their focus. Over 55 percent of federal employees surveyed this August said that they are working remotely. However, among those still work on-site, 73 percent stated that they did not believe that a federal agency was taking sufficient precautions to protect them from COVID-19 exposure.
The ultimate question for the public and private sectors alike is how to bring people back to work and restart the economy in an effective way. Public officials should not only be aware of new trends and solutions that companies deploy, but also consider ways in which some of these might change the nature of work in the public sector and whether some might, too, raise issues of invasion of privacy in the name of safety.
People have gotten used to remote work and won’t relinquish it readily. According to Professor Nick Bloom of Stanford University, 42 percent of the U.S. labor force now works from home full-time. Most of this group would like to continue doing so post-pandemic.
Various recent surveys among employees reveal that around 60 percent of United States and United Kingdom workers currently working from home would prefer to continue their jobs remotely after health restrictions are lifted, at minimum combining work from home part-time with visits to the office. Perhaps more significantly, their employers tend to agree. 73 percent of 120 U.S. company executives surveyed by the consulting company PwC between May 29 and June 4, 2020, declared that shifting almost their entire office workforce to remote work during the pandemics has been a success. More than half of executives expect to extend remote work to at least one day a week post-COVID. Some technology companies, for instance Facebook, Twitter, Slack, and Square, have already declared that they will allow part of their workforces to work from home post-pandemic. And Shopify turned its operations to digital by default.
The shift has changed the nature of business investments and dramatically accelerated the speed of digital transformation of workforce operations. It has required bigger investments in tech equipment and tech support, cybersecurity and training for employees, and the application of new technological solutions, such as teleconferencing, collaboration tools, productivity-enhancing tools, and remote work monitoring tools. The latter might raise some privacy concerns. For instance, WorkExaminer enables companies to monitor employees’ working time and online activity through a software downloaded on their laptops.
Remote work also has led to remote wellness support programs and tools for workers, who, as they blur the line between professional and private life, are experiencing increased work anxiety. A European startup from Iceland created Flowvr, a meditation app delivering guided meditations using virtual reality (VR) to provide a more immersive experience.
VR could also enhance collaborative work – Danish MeetinVR allows professionals to meet in virtual workspaces. Augmented Reality (AR) can also be used for a real-time guidance and training for field personnel. Unilever worked with ScopeAR, a global provider of augmented reality solutions, to design three dimensional instructions on how to assemble a part and maintain piece of equipment. One can easily imagine uses of the new technologies by public sector employees.
Growing Role of Technologies in the Workplace
Not everyone, of course, will be able to work remotely now or in the future. For those workers in government, retail, business services, healthcare, manufacturing, or other essential services still heading to work, technology might also provide additional safety.
Employers are eager to deploy new technology solutions to help fight the coronavirus and keep their offices as secure as possible. In addition to requiring masks on the premises, companies are setting up coronavirus testing, conducting temperature checks via touchless kiosks, providing wearable devices to make sure employees keep a safe distance from one another, and deploying contact tracing apps to identify contacts of any sick employees and prevent potentially ill people from coming to work.
For instance, Covid Buzzer is a wearable device (wrist or neck) developed by the Dutch company ASN to make sure that employees keep a safe distance of 1.5m from others in the office, factory, or any other place. As soon as the buzzer is within 1.5 meters of another buzzer, a warning signal is activated that stops once safe distance is reached again.
To analyze workplace movement of workers around offices, VergeSense, an AI-powered workplace sensor provider, offers sensor hardware and a data analytics platform. The sensors collect data about the movement of people and the number of people in conference rooms or at their desks, and measure how far apart from each other they are. The data is then used to evaluate needs and provide insights and recommendations to companies on how office spaces should be used.
In areas particularly sensitive to COVID-19 disinfection such as hospitals, airports or other public spaces, a robot can substitute for an on-site worker. One example is Akara Robotics’ Violet disinfection robot, which uses ultraviolet light to kill pathogens. Since its radiation can harm humans, the robot turns off its emitter if sensors detect people in the space.
Some of these new tech solutions, however, raise concerns in the area of data privacy. Concerns center around questions of how much data about employees employers should gather, how user consent is obtained, how it is used and how long it should it be stored, and to what extent the surveillance should go beyond a physical workplace. Ultimately, public authorities may play a crucial role in providing guidance, and perhaps even regulating, how employers need to protect workers’ rights.
The European Union already released guidance on digital contact tracing apps, recommending how data should be gathered (and the limits), how it should be processed, and how it should be stored. The framework clearly states that apps should be based on Bluetooth technology and must be voluntary, transparent, temporary, cybersecure, and approved by the national public health authorities.
In the US, some states are deploying solutions based on Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification API that uses Bluetooth proximity for digital contact tracing and requires user consent to share anonymized data with public health officials. However, private employers are designing a variety of their own digital contact tracing solutions that do not always meet privacy criteria. Thus, the National Safety Council (NSC) highlighted in its recent paper many of the legal concerns that employers will face while deploying new tech solutions. What seems to be missing right now are clear recommendations by state and federal government on everything from standards for gathering information by employers to protocols for sharing it with different levels of government.
So the new normal continues to evolve. Nonetheless, it clearly is here to stay, as are new technology solutions that make it possible. Even after the pandemic ends, the use of these technologies will expand beyond the pandemic response, and, if anything, will become even more widespread. Therefore, it is important for all levels of government to develop an approach that makes for not only a more technologically savvy future but one that is secure for both employers and employees.
 Over two-thirds, or 69 percent, of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home, according to Monster 2020 State of the Candidate Report (https://hiring.monster.com/employer-resources/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/01/2020-SOTC-Infographic.pdf cited after CNN: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/28/remote-work-burnout-is-growing-as-coronavirus-pandemic-stretches-on.html)