In the past year, industrial companies around the world have redefined the way they work and considered what is necessary to keep their workforces safe while also improving their processes. This has led to “hybrid models,” in which companies designate which workers must definitely be on site, and who can work from home.

By Scott Tvaroh and Rajesh Ramamurthi

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Contact tracing possibilities can help to protect a worker during a pandemic who must come to work.

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Companies are rightly focused on which collaboration tools will be needed to enable their particular combination of on-site, remote or hybrid work. As the pandemic persists, they also remain focused on health and wellness and how to best manage this for the workforce, including preventive measures.

Looking back at how companies responded to the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020, we saw that most went through a necessary process of experimentation as they tried to understand what works for them to keep the business running while ensuring the safety of the workforce. Some of the things they decided on were procedural; in other cases, technology was part of the solution.

As they experimented, companies faced multiple hurdles: government restrictions, privacy regulations and the costs of implementing their ideas are just a few examples. In general, technology is far more advanced than policy: Many existing technology-based solutions, for instance, those that enable contact tracing, simply could not be fully implemented because of privacy restrictions.

Now, to prepare for what is to come, companies need to make use of what we have all learned in the areas of contact tracing, collaboration tools and “enhanced” workforce management. Maybe the world will face another wave of pandemics, but maybe not. What’s sure is that another disruption of some sort will come.


Using what was learned

In our view, industrial companies have, in large, found a relatively effective way to ensure worker safety during the current wave of the pandemic. First and foremost, most companies ask employees to stay at home and work remotely, if that is possible. This is enabled by multiple collaboration tools.

Second, if a worker must come to work at an industrial site, companies must protect them from the time they leave their house until they get back. This is where procedure training, digital surveys, risk analysis and contact tracing tools can help.

Finally, companies have a role to play in protecting people everywhere, not just at work or on the way there. Here we will need “enhanced” workforce management tools. This will require different parties to work together and share information, such as governments, health officials and private companies.


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This last piece is critical because it’s so clear that one company cannot do it alone. Nor can one government. Ensuring safety everywhere is something that takes cooperation: locally, state-wide, nationally and internationally. Groups with relevant information that others need must work together. Their data must be linked together and made available to keep people safe everywhere. This will require massive international cooperation.

Let’s take a closer look at the tools that are already moving us in the right direction: collaboration tools, contact tracing and workforce management.


Collaboration tools for keeping workers home

The first area where industrial companies have made great strides is in collaboration tools, for instance, augmented and virtual reality (VR) tools. The coronavirus outbreak sped up the adoption of collaboration tools, and they are enabling companies to operate with a reduced site workforce enabled with mobile communication and augmented reality solutions, we are even seeing cases where workers are “tele-ported” into virtual spaces together through the use of VR.

A chemical company we work with leveraged AR technology to provide over-the-shoulder coaching to enable onsite workers with remote inspection services and engineering support. In the meantime, the company has discovered it can save substantially on travel to sites, even after restrictions are lifted.

Another example: A utility company used a HoloLens from Microsoft, an untethered, mixed-reality headset, to give employees the IT support they needed remotely for onsite operations, while going through a major software upgrade, therefore minimizing site contact with critical operations workers.

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Collaboration devices like augmented and virtual reality tools enable companies to operate with a reduced site workforce.

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These and many other applications are having a double impact for some industrial companies: They are finding out that the solutions not only contribute to worker safety, they also lead to financial benefits through maximized efficiency and effectiveness, as well as improved worker experience.

Now companies can plan site operations with a fit-for-purpose number of people optimizing productivity, safety and costs. They can accelerate the collaboration of the right people at the right place at the right time, without having to worry about flying to remote locations or the pandemic This leads to reductions in training costs, especially around site-specific training.


Contact tracing for protecting those who must come to work

Most industrial companies have found their own acceptable way to manage contact-tracing requirements, and many are now focused on how to do that more efficiently and effectively. With clients, we often talk about how to aid the automation of contact tracing while meeting privacy requirements and improving visibility to operations risks. This remains of keen interest, in part because no one system has proven to be the best way to go.

Starting in 2020, a variety of solutions for contact tracing came to market, including those that involve attendance analysis, video analysis, wearables and apps on mobile phones. Often, companies decided it was easier to let people work from home than to go through all that was necessary to enable tracing at work; meanwhile, other companies chose to implement manual tracing processes involving interviews, since they were not sure how long the pandemic would last. Companies were motivated mostly by concerns about liability or lack of compliance, as well as worker safety.


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What we learned is that we need to better understand what the right mix of technology and procedures to fully protect individuals everywhere, not just inside the workplace.

Some companies turned to wearables, such as ultra-wideband tags that can be attached to an employee’s lanyard or put in a pocket. The credit-card sized tags capture accurate proximity to other tags and periodically sent this through readers to accumulate these contact occurrences for risk analysis and potential future usage in the tracing process. These systems enable more privacy because the tag only has a number and not a name. Contact tracers are the only ones that ever decode the number and match it with a name.

The costs for such solutions have gone down significantly since the onset of the pandemic. Before then, companies would spend on infrastructure, wearables and solutions ranging over $15 a person per month for such solutions; now we have seen solution prices below $5 per person per month.

In the area of contact tracing, we still see a need for more clarification around the extent of responsibility of the employer. Multiple technologies can be integrated to provide accelerated / semi-automated contact tracing to limit risks based on known interactions inside the employer’s facility, which can be protected for basic privacy and utilized to provide insights to drive broader risk reductions.


Enhanced workforce management tools to keep workers safe wherever they are

A final area where companies have learned a lot is that there is still a gap around "enhanced workforce management” tools which enables companies to support managing the workforce safety no matter where they are.

Taking care of everyone includes effective management around vaccines: It’s possible that companies may require vaccines from individuals before they can return to work. But that complicates matters, too. If you’re running a manufacturing company, what will be the best way to track and know which workers have been vaccinated or not (and how many times), or if someone working onsite has symptoms? This will require compliance management solutions that push up against data privacy concerns to extend definitions that workers are fit for work.

In general, we have the impression that many companies believe they have already found the best way to meet requirements and stay operational. Now it is becoming a question of efficiency and how to use what they’ve already learned to stabilize their businesses and be better prepared for the next shock.

Companies need to set up foundational components in their operating models that will enable more productivity and efficiency during times when there is no emergency, and the flexibility needed when there is. An example is a system that enables social-distancing tracking if that is necessary but can also be used for anonymized location-based productivity tracking as well.

The more that businesses, governments, and health officials work together to ensure worker safety and privacy measures are applied across all industries evenly, the easier it will be to remain safe and keep companies running efficiently.

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To move forward and build on what we’ve learned in 2020, it’s critical that we progress more in all three areas. We still need even better, stronger integrated tools, and we have to industrialize and expand solutions like AR, VR and collaboration solutions that enable fewer people being on site. Last but not least, as we move forward, the place where we’ve progressed the least—in fostering true collaboration across industries, government and health officials to effectively capture and process data across the stakeholder parties while limiting privacy concerns and inappropriate use of the data—is where we’re going to have to progress the most.

This is the key way to protect what is most valuable: our health.


About the authors

Scott Tvaroh and Rajesh Ramamurthi

Scott is a Managing Director and Global Lead for Digital Industrial Workforce in Industry X at Accenture. Get in contact with him on LinkedIn

Rajesh is a Managing Director and Global Technology Lead for Digital Industrial Workforce in Industry X at Accenture. Start a conversation with him on LinkedIn.

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