How Does a Workplace Physical Distancing App Work?
By Katherine Schwartz
Demand Generation Specialist
The call for social distancing has echoed loud since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Many speculate that it’s one of the trends that’ll continue even long after the virus is under control. Right now, it’s up to individuals and their employers to practice good workplace distancing so we can rein in the pandemic. For many, it means turning to a workplace physical distancing app to help maintain 6 feet of space at all times.
Despite arguments both for and against social distancing apps, it’s worth looking at how they work and what possible safeguards they offer employees in the workplace. These apps are a lot more complex than they seem on the surface and boast capabilities that get better by the day as the need for conscious distancing grows. Here are a few of the ways a simple app can help you mind the gap.
Person-to-person device proximity
The simplest form of an employee physical distancing app is one that functions kind of like zorbing. Picture every employee inside of a virtual bubble that extends 6 feet around them. When employees break the six-foot proximity, it triggers an alert to their device: You’re too close to Joe Smith. It’s an instant, easy reminder to back up.
This simple solution to social distancing comes with a few simple problems, though. First, employees need to carry their smartphone or wear a smartwatch at all times—that’s what generates the proximity field.
Second, there are privacy concerns. What happens when Mark walks past the bathroom and gets an alert that says he’s too close to Madeline? Not only is this notification null because they’re separated by a door, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable.
Finally, it’s not always practical. Jada, Liam, and Summer might share a breakout space where they all sit 5 feet apart and wear masks—but they’re not going to get any work done if each gets an alert every few minutes that they’re too close to each other.
Interoffice device proximity
This method combines the concept of an office physical distancing app with the office Internet of Things (IoT). Instead of relying on proximity fields for each person, these apps would connect directly to the office IoT to create a virtual proximity network, similar to a digital twin. This allows facilities managers to solve some of the problems of a person-to-person proximity app.
For example, three workplace beacons triangulate to form a zone. When an employee walks near or into that zone, the beacons gauge their proximity to others in the zone. Too close, and they get a notification. The reason this is more effective is because facilities managers can put this pinging system on a digital floor plan. No more alerts for people on the other side of a door or wall. It also offers perks like a time-delay notification, so employees who walk past each other briefly aren’t pinged for every two-second encounter.
The major downfall of leveraging the IoT for distancing? Not every office has an IoT that’s robust enough to support distancing protocols. To build one might be cost-intensive. Moreover, it might not even be useful depending on your floor plan.
Designated spaces and push notifications
The above examples are dynamic—people in motion, in proximity to other people in motion. The concept of designated spaces is a static one, but that doesn’t make it any less viable or effective as a workplace social distancing app.
In this example, a facility manager programs occupancy levels into the area of a digital floor plan. Then, the app uses device data—personal and IoT—to keep a tally of space occupancies across the workplace. If the break room safely holds six people, Georgia will get a notification if she’s the seventh person to enter the room.
The big benefit to this type of system is that it’s space-based. Facility managers can pull data at the end of the week to see which areas constantly exceeded capacity limits and form new distancing policies specific to those spaces. It’s also cost-efficient, especially for facilities already using digital floor plans. There’s even an opportunity to roll new distancing policies into new or changing floor plans, for broad implementation across the workplace.
Multifunction distancing capabilities
Most workplace social distancing apps are in development right now—products of necessity in the current situation. Like all things, the more demand and application there is, the better the features and technology will become. It’s likely we also see solutions to some of the biggest qualms against these apps, like employee privacy.
Workplaces home to dense populations or agile environments can find a lot of utility in social distancing apps, no matter what methods they employ. If social distancing does stick around post-coronavirus pandemic, now might be the time to normalize an app that helps promote and maintain it.
Keep reading: How to Use Workplace Software for Social Distancing