IBM's new Watson Works products use AI to help companies plan when to safely send employees back to the workplace

Space allocation and facilities management issues are included in new AI products designed to assist with return-to-workplace challenges post COVID-19 lockdowns.

Temperature taking

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Watson Works is a new curated set of workplace products from IBM that embeds Watson artificial intelligence (AI) into the return-to-workplace issues that the enterprise must overcome in order to figure out when to safely send employees back to the office.

Some of the key items that the models and applications will address include space allocation and facilities management, which are essential in a post-COVID 19 pandemic environment. 

With Watson already in play, IBM began to look at its underlying product technology to extend scope of artificial intelligence. When the pandemic sent employees to work from home, "we began to focus on how we could bring these together," said Kareem Yusuf, general manager of AI applications at IBM.

Watson Works is "the culmination of [identifying alternatives for Watson], within the pandemic-era time frame," Yusuf said. IBM "quickly form[ed] an Agile team to make sure we were looking at the right data flows, and the right integration. That's what we've used to marshal ourselves forward to this point."

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

"Applying AI models and applications is especially useful in this context, where there are so many different sources of information businesses must consider, and every aspect of the situation is in flux," said  Bob Lord, senior vice president, cognitive applications, blockchain and ecosystems, IBM, in a press release. 

Facilities management and workspace planning

One of the many safety issues to consider when planning the return to the workplace post pandemic is occupancy monitoring, which ensures social distancing amongst co-workers, Yusuf said. IBM started with "lightweight things like existing Wi-Fi," and contemplated how "to build those instrumentations. That was a starting point. Now flip that into the COVID era." With location detection already available, IBM knew it applied to how employers had to consider certain levels of occupancy, and apply the same logic to social distancing, he said.

Without the invasion of face recognition, he said, there is the capability for mask detection or "pattern recognition based-on-images," critical in the efforts to tamp down the coronavirus and its aerosolized abilities. "I don't need to know it's your face or what your face is. We're simply looking at the simple pattern match and picture without a mask, picture with a mask, picture without a mask," he said."

How to handle an employee with a fever

Another sign of possible COVID-19 exposure is a fever. Watson Works products health biometrics, as well as potential wearable sensor devices (FitBit-like, he described),  particularly useful in manfacturing settings, Yusef said.

However, temperature monitoring can be used in many other scenarios, including offices, warehouses, factories, stores, churches, entertainment venues, or wherever people gather. Depending on budget and necessary hardware, temperature monitoring can be sophisticated, or be "somebody simply standing at the gate taking their temperature," Yusef said.

Yusuf explained, "For instance, 'Oh, this person's coming into the building. Temperature is high. This is an alert.' Our protocol is, we're not going to let them into the office."

How temperature detection is handled will vary between companies. Some companies might choose to disable company badge access, while others might have employees wear bio devices that are similar to fitness devices. And these could link to contact tracing to identify possible exposure to colleagues, he said.

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same--here's what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic) 

Software then hardware

While IBM does not manufacture hardware, like wearables, they do, however, work in tandem with manufacturers, who apply Watson Works and its capabilities to appropriate products that companies have ordered.

Once a business has figured out how to safely get people into the building, it will need to assess how many people can be in a certain area. Watson Works software initially is linked with employee databases. 

"Most of these are well proven AI models we'd already been working on that we're able to make sure suits and help for this particular situation we find ourselves in," Yusuf said.

"Watson Works is in use [already]," he stressed, some relying on it more than others. "The call facilities management and work-space planning is heavily in use at IBM right now. Most of us--North America in particular--are still in shelter in place kind of roles. We don't have large workforces returning into the offices yet. Some scenarios around temperature monitoring are in place, as well as running a few pilots within context or at IBM. Some customers are setting up pilot environments, as they try to open up more and more. But planning-process flow-definition, curation of the right data so you can even make decisions on what to open, like our return to workplace advisor," are still basically inactive "at the moment." 

Watson Works helps companies overcome COVID-19 challenges

Employee health prioritized: Watson Works gives companies evidence-based decisions about whether or not employees can or should return to the workplace. It notes when certain worksites or offices should remain closed. It uses current, multiple sources for analysis and collection of data. Included are facts--provided as updates to managers--regarding:

  • Local infection rates

  • Local infection trends

  • Employee symptoms

  • Employee test results

  • Employee and household health risks

  • State regulations

  • Local regulations

Relaying information swiftly: Using Watson's Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities in virtual agents and apps, employers can give employees updates and  

  • Provide their staff with quick answers on COVID-19 

  • Provide their staff with quick answers to HR questions

  • Self-report symptoms

  • Learn whether or not to report to work

  • Find out the best time to arrive at the office to avoid overcrowding

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

Best practices of contact tracing: organizations receive assistance with support for care agents and contact tracers, which can conduct interviews and use multi-sourced information regarding who needs notification of potential exposure, use a secure system to document case-related information in a secure system. Recovering employees can be supported by trigger-case management workflows.

Address management of facilities, help ensure safety compliance and optimize space allocation: using real-time data from WiFi, cameras, Bluetooth beacons and mobile phones. It is collected 

  • In a manner that protects and preserves employees' privacy

  • To help managers reallocate spaces quickly

  • To designate "no-go zones" 

  • To arrange cleaning

  • To address monitor crowding

  • To ensure social distancing

  • To ensure mask wearing 

"Quite frankly, what I think is going to be the way people are going to need to think as we manage our facilities and workplaces into the future," Yusuf said, "because we are not just going to go back to pre-pandemic. In my mind, we're going to shape our psyche. Being prepared, knowing how to manage our environments is the next thing."

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  • By N.F. Mendoza

    N.F. Mendoza is a writer at TechRepublic and based in Los Angeles. She has a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Critical Studies and a Master's of Professional Writing, both from USC. Nadine has more than 20 years experience as a journalist coveri...