Consulting giant PwC is developing a mobile app for corporate clients that can track which employees are in close contact with each other, and alert human resources who may be at highest risk for coming down with Covid-19.
PwC will sell the app to its clients, and will require the app internally as the 275,000-person company returns to its offices. Currently, it's being tested in the company's Shanghai office.
The app is a preview of the type of technology that large companies could deploy as employees return to work. As workplaces re-open, companies are grappling with how to handle future Covid-19 outbreaks and make employees feel safe enough to return.
PwC believes that digital contact tracing can answer those questions. Using signals from user's phones, it can tell how far away and how long two people were in contact. If someone at a workplace tests positive for Covid-19, HR can then look up which other employees are at the highest risk using the digital contact tracing system.
Governments are currently building apps to do digital contact tracing on national and statewide scales, and Apple and Google have teamed up to build technology into their smartphone operating systems that makes these apps easier to build and more appealing to use while trying to guarantee some degree of user privacy.
But contact tracing software works best when it's widely deployed, because the more devices emitting signals the more chances the system has to pick up when two people were in contact. And countries can't generally force citizens to download and use these apps, which limits their effectiveness.
An app that employers require before allowing workers to return to the office doesn't have that problem, and PwC says it has robust privacy, access and retention controls to ensure that only company administrators can access the data.
"I think an employer-led model that can drive adoption to their employees, right now from surveys that we've done, I feel like we'll have a higher adoption rate," said Tom Puthiyamadam, a digital leader working on the project for PwC.
Here's how it works: Workers load a mobile app onto their work phone (or personal phone, with permission). The app asks for the employee's email and instructs them to turn on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, then runs in the background throughout the day.
Whenever the phone's GPS says it's in the workplace, the app allows the phone to become an "observer" and collect information, like the strength of Bluetooth signals from other nearby phones. The contact tracing software analyzes those signals and figures out how close the phones were for how long, then summarizes that info into a dashboard that company leaders can use to make decisions about office layouts, closures and productivity.
PwC said that company execs and leaders in HR and operations are increasingly looking for tools like these to help re-open workplaces and that it's lined up hundreds of client calls and demos for the software.
One benefit for management is the ability to pinpoint infection so that entire offices or floors aren't shut down from a single confirmed case of Covid-19.
Puthiyamadam explained that earlier this year, employees at the company would get emails about being potentially exposed to Covid-19, and it seemed like an inefficient way to handle the virus in a workplace versus tracing exactly who might have been exposed.
He describes receiving emails with unhelpful messages like "'If you happen to be in the office on these dates and all these floors, you may have been exposed. If you were, you may want to self isolate.' We were getting those notes constantly," Puthiyamdam said. "That's why we went ahead and built something for our clients. And yes, we built something that will also be deployed at PwC when we begin to return to work."
Once an employee tests positive, "then it's up to the HR team to say, 'Alright, who do you want to notify?'" Puthiyamdam said. "They could say 'go in 14 days of isolation' versus saying, 'hey, we're going to shut down this entire floor of the office, and everybody go home for 14 days.'"
PwC, which is privately held, will sell the software starting in mid-May with a subscription fee. It's part of a product called Check-In which also includes tools for remote work.