Can social distancing with IoT contribute to safer workplaces? Learning from Software AG's customers

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 2, 2020 Audio mode
Making workplaces safe during COVID-19 is no small undertaking. This year, Software AG and its customers have learned plenty about how IoT devices for smart social distancing can help. At conXion 2020, we got a closer view into the field lessons so far.

software ag - conxion
(Bakery Göbecke speaking at conXion 2020)

I am staunchly opposed to compelling employees to return to workplaces before they feel safe. But some employers - and their employees - don't have that option.

Some businesses might be essential. In other cases, the paychecks are. Some governments have put regulations in place to give COVID-19 safety protocols a bit more teeth, and companies must respond.

Despite promising vaccine news, we should expect a lengthy period where workplace safety will depend on COVID-19 precautions. Practices such as mask-wearing, social distancing, testing, and contact tracing all factor in (I'm not a fan of the reassuring ritual of temperature-taking, but you could put that on the list too). Can technology help? One company with fresh answers here is Software AG.

During their recent ConXion 2020 online event, Software AG, along with partner Tech Mahindra and customer Bakery Göbecke, shared what they've learned about social distancing support via smart badges (pictured above).

Software AG formally announced their Smart Social Distancing solution, built on their Cumulocity IoT platform, on July 22, 2020. Delivered to customers via Software AG partners like Tech Mahindra, the solution uses smart badges to alert the wearer -  if they approach the limit of safe social distancing. The goal? Change employee behavior. If employees spend more than 15 seconds inside of the virtual boundary, the incident is then recorded. The wearers' data is anonymized. Software AG's solution notes the proximity between employees, but not the location of the incident. You must be authorized to get access to the data - and yes, it is GDPR-compliant.

"Over 40 percent of the workforce will work in controlled spaces"

Let's not mince words: this isn't exactly the most fun technology to imagine in your workplace. But as Software AG CTO Bernd Gross said in the initial announcement:

We are all faced with a very difficult situation: we must protect our employees. But we also need to get businesses and the economy back up and running. How do we do one without compromising the other?

Gross added:

Over 40% of the workforce will work in controlled spaces, in close proximity to others and without mandatory personal protective equipment. We can help protect those people.

Software AG began the Smart Social Distancing beta tests with customers' food production facilities, and process manufacturing plants. Two factoids caught my eye:

  • The solution can be up and running in a couple days.
  • Early tests have shown that instances of social distance breaches declined by more than 50% - within the first week.

Smart Social Distancing in action - a customer view

However useful, I can see this type of tech coming off as invasive and unwelcome. So I was eager to hear from customers, such as Bakery Göbecke. I already had some background on their story, via Jessica Twentyman's August 2020 diginomica piece, IoT is icing on the cake for Göbecke Bakery's back-to-work strategy. As Twentyman wrote, Bakery Göbecke didn't have the option of closing up shop for safety. Their customers needed them. She quotes Bakery Göbecke's Co-Owner, Christine Göbecke:

Just like so many other businesses, the current situation is tough for us and holds many challenges. Covid-19 hit us by surprise in the middle of March, with the closure of schools and a lockdown for the public, but the bakery had to stay open because we had to deliver bread and rolls to the population, so we never really closed. But the most important thing, to us, is that nobody on our staff got sick.

During the conXion 2020 presentation, Bakery Göbecke's Co-Owner, Christine Göbecke, added more color. So what led them to Software AG's technology? Göbecke said:

It was important for us to create a safe work environment. It was a big responsibility for 24 employees to feel safe, and it was challenging for us to deal with the situation... People are coming back to work, and hotels and restaurants are slowly reopening. We have to make sure that we create a safe work environment for our employees to stay safe, and for our suppliers and our customers to feel safe by interacting with us.

Soon after Germany lifted its lockdown restrictions, Bakery Göbecke put this solution in place. And did it help give workers the confidence to go back? Christine Göbecke responded:

The biggest benefit we have noticed is that people changed their behavior. They want to feel safe, be safe, and they changed their behavior to better maintain social distancing.

Even if safety is top priority, it's easy to be a little forgetful in a bustling bakery. Göbecke says that's where this solution has come in:

The bakery is busy. People are decorating cakes; they're producing breads and rolls, and they are moving trays. Sometimes they are not aware of being too close to each other. This smart social distancing solution gives them clear, but very short and receptive audio alerts that reminds them to change their behavior.

It's not an easy time. But at least the workers are safer, and the business is serving customers in need. Göbecke again:

Just like many other businesses, the current situation is quite tough for us. Thanks to the Smart Social Distancing solution, we can provide a safe work environment. And we can go back to a bit of normalcy in our production.

Social distancing IoT - field lessons and challenges

As yet, according to Göbecke, none of their workers have gotten sick from COVID-19. As industries come back online, the demand for these solutions is growing. Theij Roi, Global Head - IoT for Telcos with Tech Mahindra told conXion 2020 attendees that Tech Mahindra has done about 25 smart social distancing POCs (proof of concepts). Initial interest was in manufacturing, warehouse management, transportation and logistics, but that's now expanding into hospitality, media, with travel and theme park use cases on the horizon.

Roi made a distinction between indoor and outdoor social distancing scenarios. He says the Software AG solution is ideal for indoor situations that have, by definition, much stricter distancing requirements.

In his piece Disillusioned with smart social distancing apps?, Software AG's Chief Evangelist Bart Schouw warned that the use cases look "deceptively simple," but they require field experience:

We found out that there are a wide variety of cases where the hardware capabilities are causally related. For example, do you hand out the devices permanently to the user? Or do you want to hand them out and take them in when entering/leaving the premises? Either way requires completely different on-boarding and off-boarding procedures, but also has an impact on device requirements.

Continuous connectivity is a challenging requirement - otherwise these social distancing devices are going to fail when we need them the most. Schouw again:

The biggest hurdle I've heard is that a device that needs to be connected continuously, in order to send collision alerts, must be reliable or have "store and forward" functionality. Also, if it needs to be connected continuously, the area you want to control must be completely covered by controllers, which can be cumbersome if the area is vast, like a large factory. However, store-and-forward devices are in their infancy and have some drawbacks as the download time of events might be slow. Meaning that synchronization at peak times (like end of shifts) might be choppy.

To avoid social distancing app disillusionment, Schouw recommends three do's and don'ts:

  • Be very clear on your target audience. Example: are they known/employees or are they guests?
  • Is the area you want to monitor gated? If it is gated, is complete coverage via controllers an option? If not, make sure that the devices have reliable store-and-forward capabilities and can offload data reliably.
  • Be clear on the objectives and don’t over-engineer.

My take

I hope companies don't make the mistake of assuming they can breeze over the need to address worker safety with vaccines (hopefully) on the 2021 timetable. Count me amongst those who expect a slow, complicated vaccine rollout - and the need for masks and social distancing for some time to come.

Obviously, the lessons learned from putting social distancing devices in place will be applicable to other devices and use cases. Unfortunately, many of those use cases will push into the domain of what I'd call "workplace surveillance." That topic was beyond the scope of these presentations, but it will be an important debate going forward.

Security and privacy always factor into these projects. In this case, GDPR compliance goes a long way. But, each company will need to address this - not just in the context of their own localized compliance rules, but their workplace culture. If there was ever such a thing as a purely technical project, there isn't anymore.

I give Software AG credit for not overselling the concept of safety. Workplace safety is never a perfect achievement, and that certainly applies to COVID-19. There are always tradeoffs between risk and operational activities involving humans. Example: there isn't a scientific consensus that six feet is enough social distance, particularly indoors - even with masks. But: it's clearly a good baseline for better safety. 12 feet might be even safer, yes, but probably not realistic in most industrial workplaces.

I can understand why an individual would not want any part of a collective workplace right now. But not all of us have the choice. And some feel the civic obligation to contribute at their workplace. When workplaces do need on-site human staffing, this is the kind of project that warrants consideration.

Updated, 7am US ET, December 3, with a few tweaks for reading clarity.

Image credit - Screenshot of Bakery Göbecke's Co-Owner, Christine Goebecke, speaking at conXion 2020 by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Software AG is a diginomica premier partner.

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