Experts urge bosses to think about how high-tech precautions play on the psychology of their workers
By James McLeod
With all the talk of reopening businesses, many companies are turning their minds to possible technological solutions that could reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Ecommerce giant Amazon.com Inc. has been at the lead of this conversation, in part because the company’s online shopping and order delivery infrastructure has remained essential, while many other companies have been forced to close down.
Amazon announced Thursday that it will be spending upwards of US$4 billion on various COVID-19 responses, including US$300 million to build a lab so the company can do its own medical testing.
According to a report by the BBC, the company has also started installing thermal cameras in an effort to conduct temperature checks.
John Beattie, a disaster recovery expert at Pennsylvania-based Sungard AS, a technology consulting firm, said lots of companies are looking at temperature checks right now.
“I’m seeing everybody thinking about it,” Beattie said.
“Probably out of several dozen companies that I’m working more closely with, I would say two-thirds are going to be initially doing temperature scanning at the front door. And these are across a variety of industries.”
Beattie said that Sungard and at least one client is looking into the cameras, but most businesses are focused on the hand-held thermometers.
Some of the very visible reminders of the pandemic, all the health and safety guidelines, what they do is serve to heighten anxietyQueen’s University associate professor Jana Raver
One idea that’s gained some traction to enforce social distancing is an experiment using proximity sensors. Ford is trying out wristbands made by Samsung which will buzz if workers get within two metres.
A Quebec company called Social Distancer Technologies is already selling a credit-card sized device, worn on the hip, which flashes and makes a noise when it comes into close proximity with another device.
The company is selling a pack of 10 units for $1,990.
Queen’s University associate professor Jana Raver, who studies organizational psychology at the Smith School of Business, said that as companies consider these measures, they need to be careful to think about the underlying psychology of their workers.
“If anything, some of the very visible reminders of the pandemic, all the health and safety guidelines, what they do is serve to heighten anxiety,” she said.
“Between the masks and the markers on the floor, these things may be necessary from a safety guidelines perspective, but that’s a very different question than what employees need from a psychological perspective.”
If employees are stressed and afraid about returning to the workplace too soon, companies may wind up bearing a much larger cost in the long run
Raver said that technology solutions can be helpful, but companies need to think about what signals workers are receiving from management. If employees are stressed and afraid about returning to the workplace too soon, companies may wind up bearing a much larger cost in the long run.
“Often people can cope psychologically quite well in the short term, but it starts to take its toll after a while, so when you go back into the workplace, that’s another stressor,” she said.
Raver said that for many companies, the technology that is probably going to be most useful for managing through the pandemic is the tool that many companies have already embraced: video conferencing software, and the idea of working remotely long-term.
“Everyone has been trying to figure out how to do this effectively, and people are starting to get pretty good at it,” she said. “A lot of companies are still kind of at the entry level, trying to figure out how to not micromanage people and not be on Zoom calls all day every day, but they’re starting to get it.