Social Distancing at Work: Can You Mind the Six Foot Bubble?

June 10, 2020

So you want to keep your employees, visitors, and customers 'six feet apart'. Gather round friends, it’s time for a polite reality check. 

We are hearing it everywhere. At this point, companies like ours are fielding inbound calls every day from businesses planning their reopening strategies. Factories, office buildings, construction sites, warehouses, and more are asking us some variation of the following two basic questions: 

1. Do you have a system that lets my team members know when they get within 6’ of each other?

2. Do you have a system that tracks people so my organization can perform contact tracing in case one of our employees gets sick? 

The Link Labs team collectively has over 150 years of experience tracking people and assets. We know what’s practical and we’ve come to the fundamental conclusion that:

The answer to the two questions above is simply, perhaps you’re asking the wrong questions. 

Your intentions are in the right place. We all know by now that social distancing is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so it’s logical to seek a solution that takes the guesswork out of that equation. However, despite what vendors are telling you, available technology simply won’t accommodate the 6’ safety bubble you desire. 

Understanding this, you should instead be asking these questions: 

1. How can I practically ensure an environment where it’s easy for my staff and visitors to physically distance themselves?

2. How do I minimize the chances a team member gets sick, and when they do, how do I respond effectively for contact tracing? 

Before answering these questions, allow us to explain why using technology to keep people 6’ apart isn’t practical in most settings. 

We did a quick experiment with a BLE wristband similar to one we’ve seen advertised. We tried four quick scenarios. First, we placed the wristband on a table exactly 6’ away from a reference point and it reported 4’. Next, we tried it on a person holding their hand steady, raising it above their head, and holding typical items like a tool and clipboard. Even after adding our own filtering and algorithms we do not find these approaches or this technology reliable enough for this application. 

social distancing at work with wristband experiment results

In addition, it quickly became clear there are countless situations where even if the technology worked precisely, keeping devices six feet apart, isn’t the same as keeping people six feet apart: 

how to stay six feet apart at work example

Understanding these limitations, let’s get back to the two questions we should be focusing on. 

“How can I practically ensure an environment where it’s easy for my staff and visitors to physically distance themselves?” 

Consider your local grocery store. They have a similar issue with respect to safety of shoppers and staff. The approach they take involves markings on the floor, setting an aggressive occupancy limit, and “one-way” aisles. These environmental and process changes are practical to implement and enforce. Further, they require little-to-no technology. Technology can assist in managing these processes, such as automated people counting at a door, but won’t “solve” the problem. 

The majority of people inside a grocery store are able to manage their task of searching for and selecting items while remaining conscious of their spacing, provided the overall occupancy limit is reduced. While technology can assist individuals in keeping a safe distance, in most work environments, personal judgement (or even a pool noodle) is likely going to be more effective than RF-based methods. While a buzzing badge may make sense for very low density or remote work, where employees are not expecting to come into close contact with one-another ever, you will fluctuate wildly between false- and missed-alarms if you are routinely going to be near people, like in most retail or office environments. 

Simply put, the facility takes responsibility for creating an environment where distancing is practical and individuals take responsibility for distancing themselves 

In larger facilities the same approach makes just as much sense but is harder to manually enforce. A simple 'one in, one out' policy doesn’t work because in these scenarios you are dealing with employees, not shoppers. These employees will likely need to move around the facility multiple times throughout the day. 

All is not lost, however. You can create and maintain an environment conducive to physical distancing with the following steps: 

 

1. Understand how traffic currently routes through your facility. Identify opportunities for one-way traffic and areas prone to crowding or lingering.

2. Break your space down into small zones (e.g. ~10,000 SF) and set density thresholds defining a number of people per square foot for each work area. 

3. Implement technology to automate occupancy measurements and people density calculations. 

4. Set automated warnings and alerts to be triggered and dispatched. 5. Identify one or more staff members responsible for responding to warnings and alerts and what the procedure for clearing and documenting a “high density” alarm will be.

6. Use aggregate reports of “high density” warnings and alarms to identify locations requiring enhanced space planning, occupancy threshold review, or additional cleaning. 

 

The approach above, much like the grocery store approach, will result in a safer environment that’s practical to enforce and maintain. 

How do I minimize the chances a team member gets sick, and when they do, how do I respond effectively for contact tracing? 

Even when taking all precautions possible, there is still a chance one of your team members is going to get sick. Consider the case of a factory worker diagnosed with COVID-19. The health officers at the factory typically execute a manual and cumbersome contact tracing process among their staff and recommend that all or a subset of these staff self-quarantine. 

The first thing the organization will want to know is the list of workers in the same locations as the infected worker both at the same time as the worker was there, as well as between the time they left and before those locations received their next scheduled deep cleaning. 

In this scenario, it’s not enough to trust a cleaning schedule and assume it happened. Tracking the cleaning crew and equipment locations with the same approach you are using to track your team will empower you to ‘mash up’ a cleaning schedule with your teams’ location history. 

With the location data of your staff and cleaning crew available, when a team member has been diagnosed as sick, organizations can immediately report on the areas of a facility requiring deep cleaning, or employees needing additional testing. Most importantly an organization and it’s staff can understand which employees and areas are safe to continue operating safely “as is” without interrupting areas of the facility that are not likely to have been exposed. 

Remember that there is no black-or-white answer to these questions. These are all probabilistic decisions based on risk tolerance and the most current scientific evidence, so focus on an approach that produces a rich data set and provides flexibility to business rules and visualizations as new research is made available. 

Hang on, these are ideas, not products. I need to re-open now! 

Our goal in confronting the idea that a product can solve these challenges for you out-of-the-box is to help you get to the thing that matters: creating a safe environment for your staff and guests. There are myriad overnight suppliers looking to capitalize on your good intentions, and while there are many reputable ones as well, anyone trying to tell you this is easy or suggesting buying a widget to solve the problem either doesn’t understand the challenges well-enough or, worse, is misleading you. 

We recognize you are hurting. Business is down and expenses continue to pile up. You need a solution, not a lecture. If a company is going to sell you bracelets that buzz when your workers get within 6’ of each other, and the city says that’s all you need to re-open, why do you have to invest any time, money, or energy in doing more than this? 

The answer is, your experience. You are all too familiar with the reality that doing things “quick” really means doing things twice. You’ve already secured PPE for your staff and educated your team on best practices. Your motivation is different - you are trying to sustain an enterprise you and countless colleagues have spent years creating. Your vendors might not have the same perspective. They need to sell gear to keep the lights on, and positioning their technology as helping with contact tracing is an easy way for them to open doors. 

So what do you do now? Plan and execute. The best approach is always going to involve laser-like focus on a practical goal. Work hard to understand what that means for your business. When vendors approach with magic bullet solutions, put them to test. Ask them the “5 whys” related to their solution, ask how they measure success to know that their solution is working, and lastly, ask what they were doing 6 months ago, so you understand if they have any practical experience in this area, or are simply trying to stay relevant. 

-- The Link Labs Team 

Note: Here are some industry-specific recommendations as well as the CDC Guidelines that provide additional information and guidance on safely getting back to work. 

Satyan Shah Link Labs Bio

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