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Some Companies Are Turning To Tracking Technologies To Ensure Safe Reopening

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

How do you convince employees that coming back to work won't put them in danger of catching the coronavirus? Some companies are turning to tracking technology to keep employees safe. The fear is that tracking will lead to a lot more surveillance of workers even after the health crisis subsides. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more for this week's All Tech Considered.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Think back to the last time you were in your office. Who did you walk past in the lobby, stand next to in the elevator, chat with in the kitchen? It's impossible to remember all of those encounters.

DAVID SAPIN: Imagine that situation when you have people returning to the office. It's very inexact.

BOND: David Sapin works at the bank accounting firm PwC. His solution is a smartphone app. It uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals to keep track of how close employees get to each other. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, she has to notify human resources. They check the data from the app.

SAPIN: And then it would identify all the other phones that my phone came in contact with over some predetermined period, so it could be 14 days, 21 days.

BOND: The company notifies just those people that they may have been exposed to the virus so they can stay home. Sapin says this app is meant just for the office. It only monitors people on company property. PwC is testing it at its Shanghai office, the first to reopen since the pandemic. Employees there are required to use it. Now PwC is pitching the tool to other companies. All businesses are trying to figure out how to bring people back to the office safely. And they're looking at all kinds of technology.

JARROD EASTERWOOD: I have been busier these past two months than I think I have ever been in my professional career.

BOND: Jarrod Easterwood works at Avuity. He sells sensors and software that monitor how many people are in offices. And lately, he's been hearing from lots of companies about how they're rethinking their office space.

EASTERWOOD: Maybe those 10-person conference rooms really only need to have three or four people in them max to make sure that the employees are socially distancing.

BOND: Companies need employees to feel safe coming back to work. They're also worried about liability. If someone gets sick at work or spreads the virus to colleagues, that could be expensive and damaging.

DENNIS KWAN: It might be necessary for companies to offer such protection. This is just like safety policy, just like sexual harassment policy, child safety policy.

BOND: Dennis Kwan is CEO of TRACEsafe. It makes badges that monitor where employees go and who they get close to. Public health agencies are also working on apps to track who people come in contact with. But the government can't force people to use them. That's where companies have a leg up. They can tell employees if you come back to the office, you will be tracked.

IFEOMA AJUNWA: In terms of surveillance, employers really have carte blanche in terms of the policies they can institute, in terms of the technologies that they can employ.

BOND: Ifeoma Ajunwa is an assistant professor at Cornell. She studies labor law. She says even before the pandemic, more and more companies were monitoring their employees through their phones and computers. And she worries that once companies start using tracking technology, they won't stop.

AJUNWA: The fact that you already have limitless worker surveillance and then you're instituting these new, more intense surveillance without any limits, that doesn't give me confidence that these measures will go away ever.

BOND: Back at PwC, David Sapin says he sees the tracking app as something a firm could toggle on and off - on when there is a health crisis, maybe a bad flu season, off when the risk fades. The company hasn't decided whether to require employees in all of its offices to use the app. But Sapin has already heard from clients who say they'll make it mandatory.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PSALM TREES' "CALL WHENEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.