Now that COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, businesses are even deeper into office retrofits because it’s unrealistic to believe that the office will completely return to its pre-pandemic configuration. Firms with jobs that allow work remotely will adapt to support a hybrid office/work from home model. Like most observers, we anticipate this will occur later this year and into 2022. From a PropTech point of view, one pandemic-initiated technology that could change the face of the office are digital sign-in apps using QR codes and smartphones.
Sign-in for disruption
The pandemic forced us to rethink every human interaction at the workplace and substitute remote, digital, and touchless interactions. One essential process for both controlling the pandemic and getting work done is the process for entering the workplace.
On a typical, pre-pandemic day, employees and visitors coming to work will sign in on paper, or badge in with an RFID card, or get instructions from a receptionist. That information was only used in the event of an emergency incident. In most offices, the information about who’s on site and what they’re doing there is either incomplete, in someone’s head, or nonexistent.
COVID-19 prompted new protocols that required everybody entering a building verify their identity, participate in a health screening, and share their data for contact tracing. It wasn’t until the pandemic that HR, security, and first-line managers realized that the simple process of arriving at work wasn’t so simple.
The sign-in sheets containing employee health screening data are often incomplete and inaccurate, and they quickly pile up while delaying the start of work or a visit. Receptionists began to fear for their lives having to deal with maskless visitors. Paper records also have to be filed to be useful, and even then, you could find yourself spending a week combing through them if you needed to do contact tracing and employee notifications.
According to Rod Courtney, Health, Safety and Environment Manager at the electric transmission provider Ampirical, “When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, employees reporting to the office or a construction site were not allowed to enter without first having their temperatures taken and answering health questions in a digital form. It wasn’t long before those forms created mountains of files that were impossible to use.”
Along with having to manage an onslaught of check-in documents, the risks and concerns of a worksite-related virus transmission led to the ubiquity of touchless check-in apps. How these apps work is simple. An employee or visitor enters the workplace, points their smartphone at a QR-coded poster and the app presents a few check-in screens on the smartphone. Along with providing their name and contact information, they take a health screening and are immediately notified if they are approved or denied access. From an administrator’s point of view, they can easily set up the check-in site by purchasing a subscription online and printing the poster in their office.
Originally designed for construction job sites, these apps emerged as a way to ensure essential workers and visitors were symptom free of COVID-19. The construction industry was quick to adopt digital check-in to keep essential projects moving forward, especially for hospitals and other public buildings that required retrofits to accommodate patients and support social distancing. But the use for check-in apps goes beyond construction to other industries, especially now that most businesses are preparing to return to the office.
Today, digital check-in apps are finding their way into a building or office manager’s toolkit. They streamline the process of signing into an office while closing gaps in safety and security. As the apps become part of the daily protocol, it has led to some of them evolving to reflect the different needs of their customers. For example, customized check-in screens that accommodate different languages, presenting daily tasks to a worker, and assigning employees to an onsite supervisor or host.
Businesses are also realizing that each check-in generates data that can lead to insights. Those insights help with facilities management, space planning, ensuring adherence to occupancy rates, HR record keeping, compliance and safety requirements, and more. The information can also be integrated into a company’s existing project management, HR platform or CRM solution. Before digital check-ins, this data was often overlooked, remaining static and unused.
Necessity drives innovation
The increased use of these check-in apps is driven by four factors–five if you live in California.
First, the pandemic is lasting longer than expected. When offices and jobsites first shut down, many expected to be back in a few weeks, perhaps a few months, tops. Using a check-in app, anybody entering a building can sign in and participate in a private health screening without compromising personal health information. Employers don’t have access to that health information and so were keen to conduct private and efficient contact tracing.
According to litigation attorney Brian Junginger, “Since the health screening data is saved only on the employee’s phone, the answers to the questions are protected. Yet, the employer can still securely conduct private contact tracing without having access to the employee’s personal health information or any other data on the employee’s smartphone.”
Second, companies are realizing the benefits of replacing sign in logs and day badges with a simple app that works right from the employee’s or visitor’s smartphone. This takes care of any issues related to sharing or borrowing a badge to enter a building.
Third, such apps help prevent any virus from entering the workplace, whether COVID-19, the common cold, or any such future germ.
Fourth, the apps enable data and analytics about who is onsite and what they’re doing there. Requests for this data come from HR, operations, and facilities managers. For example, managers get insight into job site performance by customizing the sign-in questions to direct workers or visitors to specific work locations or supervisors.
According to Matthew Bieckerstaff, HR Manager at Premier Structures, Inc. “With digital check-in, we’ve eliminated the old school paper and pen sign-in process and replaced it with a secure way to know who is onsite at any time, and that employees are able to safely perform their duties.”
When it comes to reconciling hours worked, the check-in data offers proof that goes beyond time clocks and sign in sheets by providing insight on how long an assignment took to complete. Matching that data up against productivity and profitability models quickly tells a strong business story.
If you live in California, you also have a fifth reason. The state’s new AB685 bill requires employers to notify employees and subcontractors within 48 hours of their potential exposure to COVID-19. Using paper check-in records or combing through spreadsheets is inefficient, error prone, and makes meeting that 48-hour deadline impossible.
Source Planning and Construction now relies on a digital check-in app as part of jobsite protocol. “Being able to use an app-based check-in process has been a game-changer on several fronts,” says Director of Field Operations Ben Kerran. “It streamlines jobsite entry as relevant information is entered on each person’s phone. It also gets rid of physical paper and it stores all relevant data from each project in a database that’s easily accessible for contract tracing, if needed.”
Back to precedented times
Having digital records of everybody onsite can be useful for the health and safety of everybody in a building. But there are plenty of other benefits as well. Take marketing, for example. For marketers, the check-in process presents new ways to engage customers onsite and after an event with verified contact information. What’s important to keep in mind for an employer, marketer, landlord or facilities manager considering digital check-in apps is that personal health information cannot be collected.
With every major crisis comes innovation that changes the way we all work and live. In construction and commercial real estate, we’ve been forced to rethink how we enter and exit buildings and introduce new safety protocols. We are not likely to go back to pre-pandemic office environments. Things will certainly look different, be more digitized and for the better. Even after a greater percentage of the population is vaccinated, digital check-in apps will be normal and expected.
According to Ampirical’s Rod Courtney, “We have taken the position that our employees’ health and safety is our number one core value. We will not operate in an environment where employees are put at risk. While it is hard to see into the future, I believe temperature taking and medical self-checks will be around for a long time.”