Even as more businesses have begun requiring their employees to return to the office, there remains considerable anxiety and apprehension within the workforce. A recent Honeywell survey, aimed at assessing the global workforce’s sentiments on returning to the office, revealed 68% of them still do not feel completely safe about returning.

This safety concern seems unaffected by the fact that the percentage of people getting vaccinated has risen significantly, the cases of COVID-19 have been declining steadily (according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and that businesses have been making health-safety related changes at the workplace.

Businesses need to have a convincing set of responses to their employee’s question of “How do I know I’ll be safe?” These responses cannot be limited to verbal assurances but must be reflected through a variety of technological and behavioral changes in the workplace. Changes that collectively fall under the rubric of smart offices and smart buildings. A few examples of technological changes are listed below:

  • Contactless thermometers which serve as a first line of health defense at office entry points.
  • Smart meeting systems that track the number of meetings and people in a given area to avoid hallway traffic jams from multiple meetings ending at the same time.
  • Connected lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems which combine with sensors and wireless connectivity to alert for unhealthy air quality levels and automatically adjust ventilation systems to clear the air.

The mission critical point for us is that IoT (Internet of Things) is the technology backbone for smart offices and buildings in a post-COVID-19 world. Here are three ways that advances in chips, connectivity, and embedded AI (artificial intelligence) are bringing more intelligence to the edge, delivering insights and connecting systems that keep employees more informed and provide a safer environment.

  1. The Internet of Me – What do you get when you combine high-precision sensors, low-power microcontrollers, wireless connectivity, and AI? Highly personalized health management systems that fit on your wrist or in your pocket.

For instance, smartwatches monitoring for heart rate variability, changes in resting heart rates, or body temperature can provide an early warning system for illnesses, including COVID-19, before symptoms manifest themselves. Smart watches can also serve as personal social distancing monitors, using capacitive touch and wireless technologies like UWB to measure the distance between like devices and alerting users when another device (aka person) is too close.

  1. Clearing the Air – Poor air quality poses a significant health risk, particularly in in elevators, office layouts where meeting spaces create crowded hallways, and spaces with high meeting turnovers. In the Honeywell survey, more than half were more concerned with virus transmission through the air vs surface contact and nearly 1 in 3 surveyed workers said updates to the air quality systems were critical. COVID-related concerns layer on top of traditional office air pollutants caused by tobacco or wildfire smoke, molds and mildew, and gases from office equipment.

By the time people can detect a dip in air quality using their senses, the quality levels are usually at an unhealthy level. That is where smart sensors come in. AI-enabled sensors deliver intelligence at the edge that allows offices and meeting room systems to detect harmful gases and automatically bring levels back down to healthy levels. For instance, adding neural networks for machine learning allows the sensor solution to refine its measurements capabilities to selectively detect specific gases and trigger changes in ventilation systems, air purifiers, and HVAC equipment, creating healthier workspaces.

  1. Low-Touch, No-Touch Offices Voice recognition technology will play a key role in creating contactless office experiences, as team members can use voice-enabled conference call speakers, lighting systems, and other office devices in their day-to-day work—minimizing touchpoints on shared devices.

Mobile apps for the enterprise will also stand front and center this year as more offices and buildings move to low-touch and no-touch experiences. For instance, buildings can take a cue from the hotel industry, where contactless key access via Bluetooth-enabled smartphones is replacing traditional key fobs or key cards—removing another layer of unnecessary contact. 

Contactless thermometers, environmental sensors, and automated HVAC systems for health monitoring, location-based monitoring for social distancing: these are just a few of the ways IoT-based systems are empowering people to go back to their offices with more confidence for their health and well-being.

IoT technology can serve as much more than a passive tracking technology. It can play an active and powerful role in creating demonstrably healthy and safe workplace environments, which would alleviate all the concerns employees have expressed about a safe return to the office.