On the Front Lines of the Future: The Future is Digital

Man in protective gear cleans a hotel in Indonesia due to coronavirus
Credit: Willy Kurniawan - Reuters /

As the economy begins to reopen, businesses across the country are busy trying to figure out what a return to work, eating out, and shopping will look like. A big part of that journey is identifying the tools they’ll need to monitor the health and safety of employees and customers. Technology is playing a huge role in this challenge. Whether it’s temperature checks, contact tracing and social distancing monitoring, collaboration tools for the office, or apps aimed at helping employees cope with stress and other mental health issues related the pandemic, digital-first solutions will lead the way.

Technology offerings such as Zoom (ZM) and Netflix (NFLX) have brought work and entertainment into the home throughout the quarantine and will likely do so for months to come. But other technologies are stepping up, ushering in new ways of interacting in a world that has so drastically been reshaped by the pandemic and the need for social distancing.

“We’re going to see a big movement in technology around not just things like contact tracing, but around the automation of contact tracing, including how people and different regional and state entities are notified,” said Tom Hulsebosch, senior managing partner at West Monroe, a management and technology consulting firm in Chicago. “I think this is the next key step in technology and its role in the pandemic.”

Taking temperatures

The first line of defense in this digital-centric world, say the experts, is a temperature check. In order to enter office buildings, restaurants, or other public places, people are being required to show that they don’t have an elevated temperature. The presence of a fever is one of the first indicators that someone might be infected with the coronavirus. The CDC states that temperature checks are among the options that businesses can use.

CLEAR, a private New York City-based company that specializes in biometric security, recently released Health Pass, a product that can link Covid-19 health information to personal identifiers such as your face, eyes, and fingerprints. The goal is to enable people who are well to get through checkpoints in office buildings and other venues that screen for folks that are sick and potentially infectious. The company got its start in 2010 by helping travelers get through long airport security lines in the wake of 9/11. Company co-founder and CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker has said CLEAR’s technology can now help businesses with the arduous task of screening employees and customers.

Here’s how it works: a user downloads the CLEAR app on their phone and enrolls for free by verifying their identity using facial recognition. To enter an office building or other venue using Health Pass, a user takes a selfie on their smartphone to authenticate their identity and answers a few questions based on CDC guidelines about Covid-19 symptoms. Once the questions are answered, a user would approach a CLEAR pod—similar to the ones the company has stationed at airports and sports stadiums—where they can use their biometrics to verify their identity. Based on these results, which could include a temperature check, the person would be cleared (or not) to enter the building. The company says it is in talks with the New York Mets as well as Las Vegas’ Covid-19 recovery task force as potential customers.

Stopping the spread

The ability to track the spread of the virus and then notify those who may have come into contact with an infected individual is likely to become a way of life for much of country. Up until now, it has been done manually at many companies and venues. Technologies, such as Bluetooth and WiFi, however are enabling contract tracing to be done faster and more accurately.

In May, PwC, the professional services firm with 55,000 global employees, launched an app that will be used when it begins to bring its people back into its offices. Employees download the app on their phone and it allows the company to track them anonymously only when they are in PwC’s buildings. If someone tests positive, it allows the firm to identify quickly and accurately who they’ve been in contact with in the prior days and reach out to those people. Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman of the firm, says it will also make the app available for any of its clients.

Keeping a safe distance

As more employees return to the office, there will be the need to ensure social distancing at work. Technology is playing a role here too, with a growing number of digital solutions helping to make sure workers don’t get too close to each other. Landing AI, an industrial AI firm that helps companies with digital transformation and solutions, recently released a software detection took that can be integrated with security cameras to track when people are getting too close to each other. The data collected can be used by companies to decide how, or if, offices or factory floors can be redesigned.

Even Ford Motor Co. (F) is experimenting with ways to keep its workers properly distanced. The carmaker has developed wearable social distancing devices that look like watches. If employees on the factory floor come closer to each other than the six feet recommended by health experts, the devices vibrate. The company says a small group of volunteers are trying them out at the Ford factory in Plymouth, Michigan with the hope that more employees will wear them as the company reopens more factories.

Calm via apps

Over the past decade, a growing number of companies have been adding wellness programs to help employees manage their emotional and mental health. That’s likely to accelerate as employers look for new ways to help an anxious and stressed out workforce dealing with the pandemic. Apps like Calm, Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, and other meditation apps provide guided meditations, interviews, and other calming techniques to promote mindfulness.

Headspace, one of the first mindfulness and meditation apps to debut, now claims to have more than 2 million paid subscribers, and more than 600 corporate customers through Headspace for Work, including Starbucks, Adobe, Hyatt, and GE. Throughout the pandemic, all these platforms have reported a significant increase in the number of downloads, as folks look for new digital ways to relieve the tension and stress caused by the coronavirus.

As companies face this new landscape, it’s clear they’ll be leaning on technology more than ever to help them navigate a rapidly changing world. “We’ve already seen what technology can do to make remote work and learning possible, and so quickly,” said Hulsebosch. “I think that’s only going to increase and we’re going to build on the best of what we already have.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Susan Caminiti

Susan is a writer and senior editor whose work covers a wide range of business and social topics including corporate profiles, personal investing, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, work/life issues, and wealth management for both editorial and corporate clients. She is a former staff writer for Fortune magazine and her work appears in Fortune,, and in a variety of other print magazines.

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