Are wearable devices the answer to social distancing in workplaces?

Image: ProGlove

Could wearable devices that alert workers when they are not adhering to social distancing guidelines help employers bring staff back to work? Ashleigh Webber looks at how they might help and areas that could present challenges for HR.

The technology used by employers has changed significantly over the past couple of months. Initially, organisations had to get to grips with software like Microsoft Teams and Zoom to enable teams to collaborate while working under lockdown, while some have had to move to cloud-based systems or roll out monitoring software perhaps much faster than they would’ve liked.

But as the conversation turns to making workplaces safe enough for employees to return, technology firms have developed tools and wearables that could potentially make the unnatural concept of social distancing at work easier.

From people-counting cameras – formerly used to optimise office space – being adapted to alert people if they are too close to one another, to a sensor-equipped robot dog that is enforcing the two-metre rule in a Singapore park, a variety of innovative tools are being rolled out as restrictions are lifted.

And soon, workplaces where physical barriers and fixed workspaces aren’t possible could be adopting similar tools.

One such organisation that hopes to enable employers to bring staff back to work is robotics company Tharsus. It has developed a Fitbit-style wearable device called Bump, which creates a “virtual bubble” of two metres around the wearer and alerts them with light and sound if they get too close to another Bump user.

Both employees and their employer will be able to access Bump data via an online portal, so employees can look at adjusting their behaviour and employers can consider whether more staff can be brought back to work.

“It’s not about tracking and reporting, it’s about giving people feedback to adjust their behaviours,” explains Tharsus CEO Brian Palmer. “Social distancing is fundamentally unnatural, especially when you’re in a workplace where you know your colleagues.”

Bump is currently being trialled by firms in a number of industries and work settings, including food manufacture, logistics and construction. Tharsus hopes wider production will begin at the end of June.

Another organisation, ProGlove, has adapted its existing barcode scanning technology to support the return to work. It has developed an add-on to its device – which is attached to a glove and speeds up scanning in logistics or assembly line settings – to notify wearers when they are getting too close to one another.

It uses Bluetooth to measure the distances between the devices. The data can then be fed from the Android app, called ProGlove Connect Proximity, to the scanner worn on workers’ gloves, and both will alert users if they are not following social distancing guidelines. The scanning device on the glove can also flash or vibrate.

Senior communications manager Axel Schmidt says: “This is an easy way to remind workers to keep a distance so that they don’t potentially contract the virus.

“It’s extremely easy to deploy and it’s something that workers do not have much of a problem with because it’s technology that they’re using anyway, in many cases.”

I’m sure employees would be happy to use any kind of social distancing technology as long as it is not an infringement of their privacy” – Nicola Richardson, The People Mentor

Schmidt says car manufacturers and aerospace engineering firms who have reopened their production lines are among those trialling the ProGlove add-on, but the company is also looking to target retail, logistics and warehousing settings when it launches more widely in June.

The need is there, but is it available?

While technology like this will undoubtedly enable more businesses to get up and running, it is not yet readily available – and most organisations unable to operate remotely will be trying to get staff back to work as soon as possible.

“Social distancing technology appears not to be available at this stage for businesses to accurately create the social distancing needed, although it should be possible with the laser measure tools you see,” notes Nicola Richardson, founder of The People Mentor consultancy.

“While we have occupancy counters for retail, and potentially this could be utilised for other businesses, it would not ensure employees were still following social distancing. Just following occupancy counters would create a significant reduction in employees allowed to work.”

And would staff be happy to use such technology? Richardson says it would need to be carefully introduced and staff properly consulted with.

“The communications need to be well thought out. I’m sure employees would be happy to use any kind of social distancing technology as long as it is not an infringement of their privacy. The relief of not putting themselves in the way of the virus must surely outweigh the hassle,” she says.

Employee resistance

Claire Hollins, a principal associate at law firm Weightmans, believes it is reasonable to ask staff to use such technology if it is available and properly introduced.

“Whether an employer can compel employees to use wearable technology to enforce social distancing and related rules and therefore discipline or refuse access to the workplace for those who refuse to do so is a question of reasonableness,” she explains.

“The employer’s reasons for using the technology instead of other less intrusive enforcement methods will need to be explained and balanced against the employee’s objections. Where it is reasonable to require the technology to be worn and the employee’s objections have been considered and where possible addressed, it will be reasonable to compel employees to do so while in the workplace.”

But Melanie Astbury, HR manager at Cartridge Save, which is operating social distancing policies in its warehouse, says having clear restrictions that staff understand would be far more effective than relying on technology that could fail.

“It’s important to create an environment where people feel safe – both physically and mentally – and not like they are surrounded by threat. It’s far more important to ensure you have clear protocols in place; that staff know what’s expected of them and that you communicate effectively to keep each other safe,” she says.

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There are also a number of legal pitfalls HR should be aware of. For example, would the use of such technology infringe on employee privacy?

“There are obvious challenges to adopting these forms of technology, the most pressing is GDPR compliance and ensuring employee privacy is maintained – being clear on what data to collect, how to store it and what to do with it will be key,” says David Storey, EMEIA workforce advisory leader at EY.

Hollins agrees: “As the devices will collect employee’s personal data, the employer will need to update its privacy notice (and share this) to set out what data will be collected and when (ie during working hours/onsite only or continuously); where the data will be stored; how long it will be stored for; how it will be protected; and the purposes it will be used for. A failure to do so is likely to mean the data processing will be unlawful and the data collated cannot be used.”

Disciplinary proceedings

Hollins also considers whether the data generated could be used as the basis for disciplinary action if an employee repeatedly ignores social distancing guidelines. She says this will need to be built into the organisation’s privacy notice and any associated policy around the use of the technology, although there is no legal requirement to have a written policy on the tech’s use in place.

“When relying on such data in disciplinary proceedings employers will need to assess the reliability of the data collected and whether it does show fault along with other relevant evidence such as witness statements,” she adds.

There is also the question of whether employees should be going back to work at this stage at all if technology like this is needed to remind staff to keep a safe distance. Kristofer Karsten, head of people and culture at HR software supplier Ceridian, says: “A bracelet won’t stop anyone contracting the coronavirus. This is a highly stressful time for many people, and hitting employees with a double whammy of forcing them back into the office and then effectively tagging them would likely provoke an adverse reaction – and probably not the one you want at a time when companies should be taking extra care of their workers.”

A bracelet won’t stop anyone contracting the coronavirus. This is a highly stressful time for many people” – Kristofer Karsten, Ceridian

Storey at EY notes some tools being rolled out by employers have not been sufficiently tested for these purposes and may lead to a false sense of confidence among employers and their staff.

He says: “Decisions as to what to adopt and deploy should be carefully considered and be governed by both their potential protection and safety benefits, as well as the experience and perception they generate in employees – specifically will they make employees feel safe and build their trust, or the opposite?”

Even though social distancing technology may have its place while the coronavirus is still a significant threat, it may become obsolete when, or if, a vaccine is available. Is it worth investing in something with a time-limited use?

“We’re starting to look at how we can repurpose [Bump] later in the year, but at the minute we’re very much focused on the clear and present need for people to learn a new behaviour for businesses to get up and running,” says Tharsus’s Palmer.

There are also potential applications for logistics and distribution, says ProGlove’s Schmidt. Firms could use the technology for more precise scheduling of deliveries into warehouses, or to disperse staff into other areas of their work site.

It may not be suitable or affordable for every work environment or employer, but where operations need to resume social distancing tech is worth considering as part of a plan to get staff back to work.

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