Touchless technology isn’t a twenty-first century innovation. Automatic sliding doors were ubiquitous long before the “Star Trek” set designers included them on The Enterprise. But now in the COVID-19 era, zero-touch technology has come to the forefront as one of the ways reopened businesses can reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Current research shows that the coronavirus enters the body through the mouth, eyes, and nose. One of the ways virus particles are carried to those entry points is by our own hands; we touch contaminated surfaces then unconsciously touch our faces.
Think of the number of surfaces you touch in the workplace: door handles, chair backs and arms, desktops, pens, notepads, keyboards. And that’s all before you go to the break room and pick up the coffee pot which may or may not have been touched by someone else who may or may not have clean hands. It’s enough to make us all germ-phobic!
Good news: New applications of touchless technology are helping us get back to work without spreading the coronavirus on high-touch surfaces. As reported in Fast Company, voice command technology is one solution that many designers are extending into new areas. Elevators, for example, can be controlled via voice command using technology that already exists. Another touch-free technology: Gesture readers. Retrofitted touchscreens can read gestures without a user actually touching the surface – a big help for retail and museum settings where touchscreens are in common use.
In offices, zero-touch technology is already available. Touchless lockers are one way to keep work areas both uncontaminated and uncluttered. Staffers use RFID-enabled ID badges to unlock their assigned lockers. When these lockers are configured into full height or counter height partitions, they control foot traffic and maintain social distance.
Voice technology, too, is finding its way into offices. Voice commands can link together computers, monitors, and conference systems for presentations and meetings. Presenters avoid manual contact with cables or keyboards.
Everyone is pledged to new cleanliness strategies to reduce the risk of virus transmission as businesses reopen. However, it’s not practical to disinfect every surface continually throughout the day. Zero-touch technologies like touchless lockers, voice commands, and gesture readers are helping to make safe reopenings a reality.
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Paper documents are a part of every business – legal contracts, titles, licenses, healthcare data, HR records, and many more, depending on the type of business you’re in. Your offices probably have multiple layers of security protecting those important documents. Maybe you have biometric locks on your file cabinets to prevent unauthorized access. Maybe your documents have RFID tags so their whereabouts are tracked throughout the office. Anyone needing to work with your organization’s secure documents has to be properly authorized.
But what happens to document security when your business operations pivot to working from home?
Thousands of organizations shifted to WFH (work from home) at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. For some, the unplanned move to WFH is proving to be economical and productive, and now they’re planning to continue WFH more or less indefinitely.
Others, however, are finding their WFH business operations are severely impeded due to their reliance on paper documents. Productivity plummets when remote workers need to access documents stored in an office they can’t enter, either because of their own health risk or because the office is closed.
Even if critical documents are retrieved and distributed to WFH staff, it’s difficult to maintain document integrity and chain-of-custody. Families are isolating together, and accidents happen, even with the best intentions. Neither clients nor insurers look favorably upon businesses that place confidential documents in an insecure setting.
There are regulatory considerations, too. Certain types of documents cannot be taken out of a secure office setting without running the risk of fines and lawsuits. And those fines can be hefty; the first two HIPAA fines imposed on hospitals totaled $5.3 million.
Document digitization is the solution. Converting your sensitive documents into digital form gives WFH teams remote access to the information contained in the documents, without any of the risks of taking paper documents out of a secure environment. Confidential information remains confidential.
Document digitization reduces the risk of paper in another way, too. In the event of fire or natural disasters, the imaged versions of your documents act as a back-up for the destroyed or missing paper documents. If you’re requesting a duplicate permit from a government agency, for example, having a digital image of the old permit can speed the process along.
Like RFID document tracking and controlled-access file cabinets, document digitization adds another level of security to your business. For WFH operations, document digitization keeps productivity high and risk low.
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This is the third in a series exploring Dr. Kristen Lee’s (Northwestern University) nine lessons in personal and collective fortitude. Seen through the lens of a business operation, each lesson has application in the current national health and economic challenges, and for successful endeavors in the future.
Resilience is innate to us all. We have built-in mechanisms to endure and recover from physical challenges, and we can strengthen our physical resilience, as any athlete will tell you. We can strengthen our psychological resilience too, by connecting with others and doing something meaningful every day.
The ability to adapt to challenges and novel circumstances is the hallmark of resilience, not just for individuals but for businesses as well. But unlike human resilience, business resilience is not innate.
Most businesses have provisions for sudden disruptions to supply chains and operations, but few have the same resilience built in to the business model itself. Your old business model may not be holding up well to the challenges of today. But you can modify the model to add a measure of resilience that not only helps your business survive, but thrive in the “new normal.”
The business experts at Gartner offer a five-step approach to improving business resilience:
- Define the current business model.Customers, value proposition, capabilities, financial model – what have they been, up to this point? What has changed in the current crisis?
- Identify uncertainties. What uncertainties are likely to affect the business? Define the disruptions.
- Assess the impact. Create a Business Impact Analysis that covers the categories of impact, the time frame and cycles of impact, the relative weights of different types of impact, and the dependency risks.
- Design the changes to the model. An example: Some organizations are changing to fully remote work, supported by digitization (document conversion) to maintain productivity. Focus on what would need to change in your organization’s model to meet Step Three’s impact; no idea is off limits here.
- Execute. The four previous steps inform the decision-making process. Once decisions are made and the new business model is defined, take an agile approach to execution. Ensure that all department leaders, from IT to customer service, have bought in to the new business model, and are integrating it into their operations.
The same is true for business organizations. Change is inevitable, but it is usually slow and gives plenty of notice. In a crisis, however, change doesn’t wait. No business can be entirely shock-proof, but those which add resilience to their business models can meet the challenge: endure, adapt, strengthen, and thrive.
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Business owners and managers seem to be in constant disaster recovery mode these days. A perfect storm of catastrophes is pushing many companies’ disaster plans far beyond their original parameters, but there are technology tools that can help your organization weather the effects of the next emergency.
To bring the right technology to bear, first look at your business model. Ideally, it was designed with resilience in mind, adaptable to sudden change. Then identify the elements – human, physical, and digital – that are vital for the business to continue.
- Physical assets– paper documents and records, communications and IT equipment, inventory, operational facilities, manufacturing equipment
- Digital assets– Broad informational resources, from accounting and customer data to inventory and logistics information
- Human resources– Department heads and key teams with intimate operational knowledge; line workers with specialized training or experience
Once you know what’s essential, take a look at the technologies that support those vital elements you’ve identified. Is your business taking advantage of all the available technology? Here are three ways to apply existing technology to bridge asset-management gaps:
- Paper documents– Institute an digitization program to convert documents from physical assets to digital assets, stored safely on off-site servers. Remote access to imaged documents lets knowledge workers remain productive if the workplace is off-limits during a disaster.
- Communications and IT– Provide portable IT and telecom resource centers in safe zones. Employees can access and recharge work-related electronic devices at off-site locations, continuing their work even in the event of power cuts.
- Employees– Utilize RFID-equipped wearables in the workplace to maintain social distance and preserve employee health. And in emergency situations, these same wearables will help locate workers for evacuation or rescue.
The above technologies don’t necessarily require complete new systems to be put in place. Depending on how you do business, you may only need to expand what you’re already doing. For example, if you’re already providing electronic devices to your employees, it’s quite simple to have several portable charging and storage stations on hand as part of a readiness plan. Or if you’re already providing work uniforms to workers, RFID wearables are easy to bolt on to your current program.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s to be prepared for the unexpected. Emergencies of all kinds, whether natural or human-caused, can wipe out the unready. If technology can keep your business assets safe and keep your business operations productive, shouldn’t it be part of your disaster plan?
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Now that businesses are cautiously reopening, RFID is being deployed in the form of wearables that help employees maintain social distancing and stay safe in reopened workplaces.
In the U.S. and Europe, RFID suppliers are creating bracelets and smart watches with embedded RFID chips that alert users when they are too close to one another. Ford Motor Company, for example, has been testing an RFID wearable in the factories where it produces ventilators and respirators. Workers wear an RFID-enabled smart watch that vibrates and issues a color-coded warning whenever they move too near.
The watches also send social-distancing data to supervisors so they can modify workflows for better distancing. Further, the data provides supervisors with workplace contact tracing. If an employee becomes infected, other employees who have been in contact with that person can be identified for testing.
A spokesman for Italian RFID tech company Engineering points out that RFID’s proximity and contract tracing technology lets businesses isolate only the infected workers and their contacts, rather than all the employees. If only a small percentage of employees have to be pulled off the line, production can continue with little or no interruption.
Employees at many companies are teleworking to reduce their risk of infection. But even when telework is enabled by document digitization and digital asset management, it isn’t practical for every type of enterprise. Manufacturing, scientific research, logistics – these all require workers to be in the same place at the same time. The “new normal” is going to call for new ways of doing business and new applications of existing technology.
RFID is a mature, robust technology, a proven risk reduction tool for asset management and security. This same technology can be applied to a different kind of business risk: an infected workplace. RFID is easy to adapt for the socially-distanced workplace. As RFID is protecting your staff, it’s also protecting your business from additional production slowdowns. RFID is part of the solution for a safer workplace during reopening, and into the future.
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