Return to the office: This company is giving workers beeping wristbands to keep them socially distancing

HR software firm Personio is using wearable devices to help staff return safely to the office.

Once the lockdown is over, will we go back to our open-plan offices?

How to safely navigate the return to work is a subject keeping many managers – and their employees – awake at night. With traditional office working having been upended by COVID-19, companies must now figure out how they can get their employees back to their desks while still managing social distancing.

One German company hopes that wearable technology could be part of the answer to this challenge. Personio, which develops HR software for small and medium-sized businesses, has been trialing the use of wrist-worn sensors that alert the wearer when they come within 1.5 meters of another person wearing a sensor – thus helping employees stay within the guidelines for social distancing.

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Sixty employees were involved in an initial two-week "back to work" trial using the technology, with half coming in one week, and the other half the next. Personio is now testing out its own version of the "new normal", which involves 280 employees, split into two groups of 140, being allowed back into its Munich office on a rota system.

"We're all about using data and solutions to make smarter strategic decisions," Hanno Renner, CEO and co-founder of Personio, told TechRepublic.

"Speaking to our team, we knew that many people would be keen to work at the office and see their coworkers once it was safe. So, once restrictions started to lift in Germany, the question we had to ask was: how can we get more than 400 employees safely back to work in our Munich office?"

The answer? Carefully. To ensure the initiative was viable, Personio developed new rules for the office, starting by limiting the number of people who could enter the building at once. Volunteers were split into two groups of 30, who used the Kinexon SafeTag device to help enforce social distancing.

"I already knew the founders of Kinexon and was familiar with the technology, which had primarily been used in industry settings," says Renner. "I thought this could be a great opportunity for us to try it out and see how it could help us work safely in our office."

The device, which can be worn as a wristband or attached to clothing, uses UWB (ultra-wideband) sensors to measure the distance between each device. If two sensors detect that the distance between them has fallen below the minimum safe distance for an extended period, it triggers both visual and audible warnings to move away. 

UWB is more accurate than Bluetooth, meaning it can detect the exact location of another sensor, down to a matter of inches.

"We can adjust those distances and time periods too," says Renner. "So, if guidelines change, we can reconfigure the settings."

In line with personal data-protection guidelines, each sensor is registered in the system with a unique ID and the system does not track "absolute" location data from each individual. While it is possible to collect data through the system to trace chains of infection – for instance, storing a timestamp and ID of devices if they break distancing guidelines – Renner says Personio isn't using this feature in the trial.

"Our main objective is to ensure 'in-the-moment' social distancing," he explains.

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While there has been no shortage of innovation in planning the return to work, in reality many considerations for the new normal are less about clever use of tech and more to do with common sense. "A few of the adjustments we've made to make the experience safer include putting hand sanitizer at the office entrance and in every room, [and] giving every employee a branded mask that needs to be worn as soon as they leave their desk," says Renner.

In line with other expectations for the office of the socially distant future, Personio will also space out workstations to keep desks two meters apart, limit the number of people allowed in meeting rooms at once, and re-plan walking routes around the office to reduce footfall in high-traffic areas.

The latter includes establishing "drinks corners" throughout the office where employees can grab bottled drinks and fruit without having to walk through the whole office. High-traffic areas will also be cleaned and aired throughout the day, says Renner.  

Getting back into the swing of things will be by no means be easy. With remote workers having been confined to their homes for so long, sharing a workspace with others will require employees to be mindful of their surroundings, not to mention to curb their desire to reform old office huddles.

"As the trial began, it became clear that many people were undercutting the correct physical distance," Renner admits. "But, as they got used to wearing the sensors, the trial participants got a better feel for the distance they needed to keep – and the number of beeps heard around the office quickly fell."

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Renner makes a point that some of the challenges of re-entering office life are things that businesses could very easily overlook. "It may seem straightforward, but one of our challenges has been to work out how people can safely bring in, prepare and eat their own lunch in the office," he says.

"Initially, employees were asked not to use the microwaves as a lot of people touch these appliances. But quite a few people wanted to bring in their own food. So, we changed the rules and allowed people to use the kitchen again and, to make things safer, we moved cutlery and plates outside of drawers, so people don't have to touch so many handles and surfaces."

Following the success of its trial of Kinexon's wearable sensors, Personio is now in discussions with the technology firm to explore if – and how – it can use the technology to make a joint customer offer.

For Personio employees, meanwhile, returning to the office will remain optional for the next three months. Despite this, many are all too ready to leave behind the confines of their home office and return to something resembling normal life.

"Coming back to the office and seeing my colleagues really boosts my mood," says Nina Rogler, a junior branding manager at Personio.

"The first day back was a little awkward in the beginning, especially having to wear a mask around the office. But, day by day, people are getting more relaxed and it already feels a bit more normal now."

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