COVID fear remains for returning office workers

With vaccine programmes across the world gathering pace, a return to work by the end of the year is on the cards for many workers. But according to a new survey by the UK’s ICAEW, most employees are reluctant to return to return to their office, with only 1 in 3 planning to go back. It’s a number that pales in comparison to the 59% of workers across the rest of Europe who are prepared to return to their office. In truth, it’s not a huge surprise.

For just over 12 months we’ve been urged to limit social contact. Everyday aspects of our lives, like visiting family and friends or going to the supermarket, have been modified to contain the spread of a virus we can’t see. Physical practices like keeping your distance, wearing a mask and sanitising your hands have created very real and ingrained habits. Moreover, they’ve taught us to be cautious and wary, even fearful of being in close contact with others. That has a very real affect of how we view the world and lasting effect on how we interact with those around us.

It’s natural therefore that people will be cautious returning to work. The prospect of commuting, of sharing trains and buses with strangers, of being back in offices with co-workers is a very real worry for many. It’s a heady mix of fear, anxiety and trust. How do we know if the people we are coming into contact with are being sensible? Or if our employer is taking the virus seriously? What if I get sick and pass it on to my family? They’re valid questions that are difficult to answer and while employers cannot control their employees’ safety at all times, they can certainly make them feel safe at work.

It is incumbent on employers to ensure their workers can return in full confidence, safe in the knowledge that they are being protected, and that the threat of infection is being taken seriously despite the protection offered by vaccines. While questions remain over the long-term efficacy of the vaccines, their effectiveness on virus mutations, and their ability to prevent transmissions, it is necessary for employers to have protocols in place to keep their workplaces safe. The ability to constantly review, react and adjust the environment will be necessary, not only to stay operational, but to reassure and protect the workforce. COVID remains a threat in many ways despite the obvious progress made since the turn of the year.

A safe return

For any business, the starting point for building the confidence in a returning workforce is to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, and to ensure the whole organisation is on board. Trust is paramount. Measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and sanitising hands will be expected, and they’ll need to form part of a rigorous set of SOPs that are agile and flexible. Moreover, they’ll need to be monitored, measured and refined for efficacy or in line with Government guidance which itself will be prone to change.

It’s a complex set of challenges for businesses that are already dealing difficult trading conditions. But if they are to overcome the latter, they will have to deal with the former, and indeed get used to the fact that working conditions can and will change overnight. It means that solutions and measures will be in place for some time to come – which is why organisations are increasingly turning to technology for answers, and specifically to AI.

A polymer and chemicals manufacturer is leveraging its existing CCTV system to deploy an AI-powered Computer Vision software. The solution – EmpircAI’s WorkSafe Analytics (WSA) - has allowed it to monitor adherence to measures like social distancing, mask wearing and occupancy levels around its plant in real time. It’s been crucial in getting its workforce back to working under relatively normal conditions and has had a very real effect on how it manages its SOPs. Very early on, the system was able to show areas that were distancing risks, enabling EPCL to adjust its layout. Moreover, real-time monitoring showed a reduction in mask noncompliance by up to 90% and more than 80% reduction in social distancing violations within the first month after WSA was installed. The staff, by all accounts, are very happy too.

It’s another clear win for technology, but again should we be surprised? Matters involving people are inherently complex, and when it comes to mental and physical health, they carry an ethical and moral heft. Solving those problems, especially against the backdrop of a virus we know very little about, is a difficult and thankless task – but it’s not one that needs to be overcome by brain power alone.  Technology, and, in particular AI, can play a significant role here.  If we are to return to work confidently and safely, that ability will be paramount, and potentially game changing.

Give your workers the confidence they need to return to work safely. Learn more about WorkSafe Analytics

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