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Returning to Your Office? There's Likely an App for That

Employees must demonstrate to employers that they're healthy and won't infect their colleagues

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You’re about to return to the office for the first time since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, at least assuming the omicron variant doesn’t mess with those plans. But the workplace you left behind, and the protocols for even being allowed in the building, will barely resemble pre-coronavirus norms.

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Before the pandemic, you might have had to flash an ID or wear a badge to get past the lobby of your office building. That still will be the case. But to gain entry now you’ll likely have to go through an additional set of hoops to demonstrate that you won’t infect your colleagues.

Such proof may be imparted through an app your organization provides or asks you to get on your own through Google Play or the Apple App Store. While firms can generally set their own policies, many also will keep a watchful eye on federal or local vaccine mandates, Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements and variants' infection rates.

“A test result [and] a vaccination are just another part of your identity,” says Catesby Perrin, executive vice president of growth with Clear. The company is perhaps best known for its biometrics scan kiosks used to securely expedite a traveler’s entry at airports for a subscription fee.

The company, based in New York City, last year developed the modular Clear Health Pass mobile app, free to users, which organizations that want to ensure a safe return to the workplace are customizing. Among those using it are the New York Stock Exchange, Union Square Hospitality Group and the 9/11 Memorial & Museum as well as ballparks and restaurants. 

Supplying the information

Employees’ steps toward a safe return often begin well in advance of the proposed back-in-the-office date. Some companies conduct surveys through an app or web portal to gauge the staff’s mood and comfort level.

As the return date nears, many employers want to see proof that you were vaccinated and maybe got a booster shot as well. Absent the shots, the company may require you to follow a regular coronavirus testing protocol, perhaps as frequently as once a week. You also may have to take your temperature daily before heading to the office or have it checked once you get there.

If you’re under the weather, your bosses will want you to list your symptoms and presumably stay home. And you’ll have to let your company know if you’ve been in close quarters with people who are sick.

As COVID becomes endemic over the next year or two, we’re going to shift in the way employers and employees capture health data in the enterprise.;

— Jason Story, ReturnSafe

You will deliver all this information through whatever designated app or web portal the company is using, some developed internally, others from outside vendors. For example, to start using the free ReturnSafe app that you fetch from the App Store or Google Play, you must enter a unique workplace code from your company. You then can upload vaccination cards, test results and other information your company requires, which ReturnSafe can then verify.

“As COVID becomes endemic over the next year or two, we’re going to shift in the way employers and employees capture health data in the enterprise,” says Jason Story, cofounder of ReturnSafe. The Austin, Texas-based company lists clients such as Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kroll, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association and Sesame Workshop.

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Employees using the IBM Digital Health Pass, also available free in the app stores, present a QR code provided by their organization inside a digital wallet. You’ll scan that code when arriving at work.

ADP, which handles the human resources and payroll functions at many companies, added its own set of “back-to-workplace” features for clients, including compliance and readiness surveys that help the firm assess employee availability along with their vaccination status. Based on the results, companies may move staff around to different offices or put hybrid workplace solutions in place.

A question in the free ADP mobile app asks employees whether they feel “confident/safe,” “somewhat nervous” or “anxious/unsafe” about returning to the workplace. And just before the return, people may be asked if they’ve had a fever, cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms within the past 24 hours. 

Privacy is paramount

Chief Executive Sebastian Seiguer of Emocha Health, a Johns Hopkins spinoff that also produces a health screening app, concedes that “the protocol and the technology needed” to store vaccination cards and such “is not rocket science.” But privacy is paramount.

“If you tell an employee to send you their very personal medical information in a way that you haven’t secured and that gets lost, you have a huge issue," he says. "[You have] an obligation to the employee to protect their data.”

Emocha counts the Warby Parker eyewear chain, the Clark County School District in Las Vegas and AARP among its clients. When you check in with the Emocha app at the office, your phone will display a yellow, green or purple badge. Yellow signifies something of concern showed up in your data, meaning you should not be allowed into the office. Green means you are good to go. And purple means you’re good to go and vaccinated.

;If you tell an employee to send you their very personal medical information in a way that you haven’t secured and that gets lost, you have a huge issue.;

— Sebastian Seiguer, Emocha Health

“Some [organizations] don’t want the employee to disclose [this] status in front of other people,” Seiguer says. “In other cases, this is actually used for some kind of access control.”

Indeed, just how you log into an app will often differ based on where you work or what other entity is asking for the information. You may have to enter a PIN or passcode. You may scan a QR code. And sometimes facial recognition is used.

The same access requirements generally apply for field workers and contractors. For some employees, returning to work also means hitting the road again for business travel, perhaps to visit branch offices or attend sales meetings or conferences. The Consumer Technology Association is requesting that U.S.-based attendees of its CES trade show in January submit proof of vaccination and sign up for the Clear Health Pass.

Hybrid workplace will continue to evolve

Companies around the United States are still reckoning with what the office you return to will look like. Cubicles or desks may have plastic barriers around them, with chairs in open seating areas moved farther apart. Fewer people are likely to be around, too, especially with many businesses embracing hybrid workplace models where half the staff comes into the office on a given day while the other half works virtually from home.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have on workplace etiquette. A meeting in which one participant is joining via video may mean that those in the office also join individually on their computers to level the playing field among employees. Or staffers working remotely could be asked to turn on their video cameras to be seen as well as heard, an effort to forge team building or a sense of togetherness.

“I have not seen that as a requirement,” says John Dooney, a human resources adviser at the Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management.

What is happening in places: Companies are closing lunchrooms or disabling vending machines to avoid having too many people congregating in one spot, he says. People coming to the office are also asked to bring their own laptops, lest anyone be infected by sharing computers and other tech. And while some people may be permitted to remove masks while sitting in their offices, they may be required to wear them around office mates.

Whenever the pandemic runs its course, some workplace changes are likely to remain a fixture, which technology has helped make possible. Thanks to Zoom and other videoconferencing solutions, many have come to appreciate the relative ease and flexibility of working from home, at least part time. And that may mean spending five days a week in the office will become a thing of the past.

“The only thing normal about the new normal is that it will continue to change and evolve," says Perrin at Clear.

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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