By Dave Clifton
Content Strategy Specialist

Social distancing in the workplace is becoming a norm, and there are many solutions emerging to manage it—new desking arrangements, creative shift scheduling, new workplace policies. The issue is they change the way employees interact with their surroundings. Employees aren’t just apart, they spend time and energy maintaining that distance. That can detract from their focus and productivity, and why the prospect of social distancing workplace apps intrigues many employers.

Similar to wayfinding software, office apps for social distancing may soon be the newest tools employees rely on to govern their interactions with the workplace. But they’re far from a sure thing. While there’s plenty of demand for apps that keep workers properly distanced, there’s no guarantee employees will welcome them.

The technology already exists

Proximity sensors and wearable sensors aren’t novel concepts. They pre-date coronavirus and have already found success in many industries, including healthcare, search-and-rescue operations, and security. There are even industrial manufacturing operations that utilize workplace social distancing technologies. The challenge isn’t porting over the concept to offices—it’s how to do it in a way that’s transparent, non-invasive, and cognizant of employee privacy.

The concept of a social distancing app is growing in popularity. An app functions much the same way as a wearable; instead, employees’ smartphones trigger an alert to remind them of proximity.

How these apps work

Mallory decides to work in Space A. When she gets there, she sees that Chaoxiang and Mariposa are already working there (socially distant). She decides to take an available seat near Mariposa, but as she sits down, her smartphone alerts her that she’s too close. That’s her signal to move the desk a few feet further away or pick another seat. It’s a simple example, but an effective portrayal of how an app can keep employees mindful of distance.

There’s also a proactive element to consider. More robust apps might integrate with workplace software to give employees a heads-up about their destination. Nathan takes his lunch every day at 12:15 and heads to the break room. Today, on his way there, his phone alerts him, “There are six people in the break room right now.” Nathan decides to grab his lunch, eat outside, and enjoy the fresh air.

Finally, there’s the contact tracing element to consider. Social distancing apps that collect data about other devices they ping can provide an information network that makes it easy to alert employees to possible COVID-19 exposure. Ernesto tests positive for COVID-19. His employer exports his alert data from the past seven days and sees that he’s had contact with 11 other people. They can quickly and discreetly notify those 11 employees and urge them to get tested.

Why are they important?

Many people might look at a social distancing app and ask, “What’s the point?” Getting an alert when you’re within six feet of another person can seem a little redundant, since it’s likely you can see that person. But there’s more to a social distancing app than immediate proximity alerts.

  • They keep employees mindful of distance and engrain good habits
  • They reduce opportunities for exposure by encouraging behavioral modification
  • They’re preventive in that they can warm employees of potential risks
  • They enable contact tracing that’s quick and comprehensive

From a practical standpoint, social distancing apps are extremely useful, in both preventive and reactive capacities. While employees might only see them as a simple alert system, they’re so much more.

Employee privacy is a big concern

For all the positives associated with social distancing apps, there’s one big negative: employee privacy. Anything involving GPS tracking and employees is a minefield, and it’s a hot-button topic that can create animosity in the workplace. While GPS tracking of employees with consent is legal, it’s an uphill battle for many employers whose employees see it as a slippery slope.

The current tech climate is also poor for social distancing apps. Large-scale scandals involving data theft, compromised personal information, and obfuscated user permissions have left people wary of any apps that actively collect data in the background. Moreover, opportunities for misuse or mishandling of personal information make many employees wary of granting employers access to it.

Finally, there’s a muddled line between employee property vs. employer permissions when it comes to installing a workplace tracking app on a personal smartphone. When an employee leaves the workplace, does the app turn off? How can they be sure? What if it doesn’t? The potential for privacy abuse is too great for many employees to willingly buy-in to a social distancing app that doesn’t offer them any (perceived) benefits.

A future of workplace distancing

Social distancing will impact workplaces for the foreseeable future and change the way employees interact with it and each other. Technological advances that facilitate safe distancing are inevitable. Will we see the emergence of social distancing workplace apps post-COVID-19? Almost certainly. Will these innovations be as widespread as other types of workplace apps and software? That remains to be seen.

Keep reading: Modifying Your Workplace for Social Distancing

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