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What happens when enterprises must shut their door to avoid public health risks, yet business still needs to continue?

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, we’re well aware of “The New Normal,” whether it means wearing a mask, standing six-feet apart, or working from home. All of the things we’re doing in this time of “The New Normal” are intended to keep customers, employees, and communities safe and healthy so that we can continue to operate as a society and do business. I find myself fortunate to work in an industry that can largely continue to operate working from home and for a company that values public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. I also recognize that there are essential businesses that require employees to be physically present — healthcare professionals and first responders, grocery store workers, food service employees, and delivery drivers. These essential roles make it so others can stay safe at home. There are also some concerning stories in the news, such as firing employees who organize to demand safer working conditions and reports of thousands of meat processing employees being sick and plants being told they must continue to operate because they are part of our critical infrastructure.

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As our society approaches the next normal, many companies will inevitably undergo a digital safety transformation. Some enterprises have already begun to recognize that they can harness the power of technology to do their part in keeping employees, customers, and the public safe. One outcome of the COVID-19 outbreak is that the public will change how they interact with one another not only as a customer but also as an employee of those businesses as well. With this new context, those businesses need to be prepared for a new wave of digital safety transformations. 

The essential back office

While I’m sure many of you are aware of the categories of essential employees I mentioned before. What hasn’t been on the news as much are businesses that you wouldn’t expect to need staff physically present in their offices to continue operating. Many businesses have taken or are undertaking digital transformation, which has reduced the amount of physical interaction needed — but digital transformation can take years to achieve. Oftentimes, there are requirements to maintain files for legal or regulatory reasons, and file clerks keep these businesses moving. Similarly, mailrooms and treasury departments may need to remain staffed to send and receive orders, payments, or other critical business correspondence.

Many of these businesses are operating at five percent or less staff, and are being responsible by operating within guidelines shared by health authorities. There are also some concerning stories of companies not acting responsibly and remaining open despite public health guidance.

We’re now starting to see governments give businesses the go-ahead to begin the early phases of reopening, and many businesses (and society as a whole) are looking for “The Next Normal.” This doesn’t mean continuing to work from home and sheltering in place, but restarting society, carefully and safely. This is a challenge with complexities that can’t be underestimated, but companies have started to plan how they’re going to keep their employees safe while starting to return to normal operations.

Emergence of the digital safety transformation

Many companies are doing this by following the basic guidelines provided by health departments: limiting the number of people in the building at a given time, reconfiguring workspaces to promote physical distancing, and telling employees that if they’re not feeling well, to stay home for the next 14 days. This is certainly a good place to start, but some companies have said that it simply isn’t enough to just share these guidelines with employees. They’ve said that they feel that the health and safety of their employees or customers is the top priority for them, and they are bringing the power of the technology they’ve used to undertake digital transformation to make that real.

One customer I spoke to recently told me that they looked at the recommendations of the health department in their state, and understood immediately that they needed to devise a plan that would split their staff into separate groups that would be in the office on different days. This would help make it easier to follow physical distancing guidelines, but it would also mitigate the impact if someone did get sick. In addition to splitting their staff, they identified that they needed to be able to tell their employees that if they are sick, they should not come to work for the next 14 days.

Safety solutions delivered through technology

What they decided to do to solve this problem is to look at the tools they already had at their disposal. They reconfigured their Employee Identity Management solution to divide departments into two groups, and they leveraged a survey tool they already had in house to collect information from their employees on whether they have felt ill or had a fever recently. Using those two pieces of data, exposed as APIs through MuleSoft, they build an integration with their building access management system to determine if an employee is in a group that is allowed access to the building on a given day and also takes into consideration whether an employee has said they feel ill or had a fever recently. If an employee tries to enter on the wrong day or has reported that they’ve been sick in the past 14 days, their badge will not give them access to the building. Using MuleSoft and leveraging the architecture and development skills they had built along their digital transformation journey, they were able to take this from concept to reality in three days.

This is just the beginning of the digital safety transformation that we can expect to see leading companies do to protect their employees and the public to help us return to society. One can easily imagine this approach being extended by incorporating thermal cameras or scanners at building entrances and denying access to anyone with a fever as a precautionary measure. Notification systems could be incorporated to provide feedback and instruction through a screen at the entry point, by SMS, email, or a notification to an app. As antibody tests become available and as we better understand if having those antibodies protects us, public health officials can continue to evolve safety protocols and companies, like the customer I spoke with, will be poised to continue to responsibly apply technology to keep their employees, customers, and the public safe.

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