There are various considerations in reopening offices and bringing employees back to work safely, especially now that COVID-19 infections are once more soaring in various areas. If your office is open, then COVID-19 contact tracing solutions are necessary tools in preventing further transmission because they let office managers identify who may be infected or contagious and react appropriately.
Return to Work (RTW) tools can help employees run wellness checks and schedule attendance for the day. Similarly, space management tools can keep track of various areas in the office and better distribute personnel for social distancing. Some of these have contact tracing features, however dedicated contact tracing tools help collect time and location information that can be accessed in the event that an employee is infected. That’s critical information in knowing who else was in the vicinity at specific times and thus be able to alert other employees who might have been exposed. It’s also necessary data if your policy is to bar potentially infected workers from returning to the office until after a quarantine period or a test. The larger or more distributed the workforce, the more complex the contact tracing requirements will be.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines contact tracing as a core disease control measure that, “involves working with a patient (symptomatic and asymptomatic) who has been diagnosed with an infectious disease to identify and provide support to people (contacts) who may have been infected through exposure to the patient. This applies to anyone that has spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person. This process prevents further transmission of disease by separating people who have (or may have) an infectious disease from people who do not.” In other words, contact tracing data applies to anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person.
The most basic form of contact tracing can be taking a person’s name and phone number when they enter an establishment or business and recording the time. Should someone test positive and report their condition, then everyone put at risk by having been at the same place at the same time will receive a call. Usually, they’ll be informed that they might have been exposed and that they should quarantine and seek a COVID-19 test. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely based on voluntary human participation.
That’s not to say that contact tracing can’t be done manually, using spreadsheets as a quick-and-dirty database, but this generally only works for very small businesses where managers can easily verify data with all employees directly. The method becomes unwieldy for businesses managing multiple office locations, floors, and staff counts higher than 10 to 20 workers. That is where contact tracing apps come in.
Some of these solutions are made available as a part of RTW app solutions that are also focused on other tasks, like workplace policy creation and space management. However, some are standalone systems. The CDC acknowledges the usefulness of these apps but also stresses that organizations will need both dedicated staff and an effective COVID-19 response plan. Fortunately, the CDC offers guidelines for developing contract tracing plans to help.
“Contact tracing has emerged as an essential component for return to workplace strategies as it provides a way to track, record, and map interactions. However, concerns over data privacy can limit participation among employees. Users want to know their data and personal information is secure,” said Blake McConnell, executive Vice President for Employee Workflows at ServiceNow.
However, while having contact tracing in your RTW toolbox is important, it’s not a full solution by itself, just one necessary component. “When it comes to keeping employees safe when they return to the workplace, the most effective measures are routine lab testing, physical infrastructure reconfiguration, workplace social distancing, and remaining vigilant of potential exposure to COVID-19,” said Brad Bostic, Chairman and CEO of hc1 (www.hc1.com), a bioinformatics company focused on health systems and laboratory solutions. He stresses four important points that any RTW plan and contact tracing policy should address:
Contact tracing solutions need to be easy to use and, as much as possible, be compatible with the tools organizations are already using. For example, users of facilities management applications, which handle building issues like HVAC maintenance and secure entry access, might already be familiar with a company like Envoy, a popular solution in that space. Opting for a contact tracing solution from that vendor means it’s likely your security staff and receptionists will already be familiar with the interface and so reduce training as well as implementation time since the Envoy contact tracing component can be had not just as a standalone app, but also as a simple add-on to its core application.
Additionally, CIO’s and human resource (HR) departments are more likely to consider solutions from companies with whom they already have relationships, or with whom their employees are already familiar, especially when a quick deployment time is important. That said, solutions with a unique value proposition (certainly the case with many contact tracing tools) can solve a variety of problems faster, and so also need to be considered. If your company requires a wearable solution, for example, due to higher-then-average access security concerns, then vendors that can provide all the components of such a solution (the wearables, readers, tracking software, and signal beacons) will be a more compelling requirement than compatibility with other on-site tools.
The key is determining your needs prior to purchase. That means due diligence with building and facilities staff as well as a dedicated team to manage compliance with state and municipal COVID-19 business guidelines. Once those are determined, you can match them against the needs of your particular business and make a detailed list of the contact tracing features most important to you.
No matter what your individual business needs might be, however, any contact tracing solution needs to make it easy to both track and collect information. Generally, this is done via some combination of apps, wearables, Wi-Fi networking, and self-reporting. However, business analytics capabilities in particular should allow organizations to quickly process collected data for imminent risk and then reach out to potentially impacted employees.
That means assessing the status of exposed contacts and providing easy ways to understand the risk levels for returning employees across different worksites. IT professionals should look for solutions where the contact tracing data flow is quick and efficient all the way from collection to insight translation. And special attention should be paid to final data presentation to make sure it’s easy for managers to understand so they can make quick decisions.
Aggregating data from attendance logs, shift management apps, and other HR management solutions is a fairly easy part of the process. Where it gets difficult is being able to effectively time-stamp and cross reference this data with not only your various office locations but also who was in those locations at any given time. And once that hurdle is crossed, the solution also needs to use the data to determine the risk levels now faced by other employees working at these offices. Each business’ needs will vary depending on location, the nature of the workforce (meaning size, distribution, and task orientation), and the complexities of the business when it comes to compliance needs and regulation. So, again, that brings you back to the importance of a thorough due diligence process before deciding on one of these solutions.
“One of the key factors for businesses when considering any contact tracing application or technology is to make sure it’s in line with data protection and privacy regulations,” says McConnell. For buyers, that means it’s essential for any contact tracing solution to maintain the company’s data privacy policies, which usually also means obtaining consent from employees.
This is even more critical when it involves employees’ personal health information. Employees need to know that their personal information is only being collected for health purposes and that it will never be shared with any outside agencies, like law enforcement or immigration.
An effective, though usually pricier option, is to select systems that enable a token-based system. Such solutions ensure that only key data points are collected, and they generally go a long way in convincing employees to participate in the necessary data collection while still feeling comfortable from a privacy perspective.
McConnell emphasizes that when contact tracing efforts fail, it’s generally due to poor adoption or lack of employee participation. “Successful contact tracing requires [both] participation and privacy. Clearly articulating the benefits and being transparent about how an individual’s data is used is critical to implementation,” he says.
So when making a buying decision, you need to put focus on not just data collection but the features you’ll need to ensure buy-in from employees. To help, some contact tracing tools provide features akin to an email marketing app that give managers the ability to send out health-oriented email newsletters to employees. Others offer tight integration with team messaging and online survey apps, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams.
All the apps listed below address contact tracing using at least several of the capabilities mentioned above. You should use evaluation versions and detailed conversations with sales staff to determine which has the right mix of features for your organization. But do it soon as none of these solutions can be put in place without some significant lead times, since you’ll need to handle not only customization and data integration, but also employee training and buy-in challenges.