This article is not about returning to "normal."
Nothing about the traditional workplace will return to the way things were: employees packed together in small spaces for the sake of efficiency, people shoving themselves into elevators like sardines, open containers of food in the break room, long lines and small talk at the barista, people coming and going whenever and wherever they please.
Those days are over, at least for the foreseeable future.
No one could've predicted the challenges of 2020, and with a new year comes a new set of challenges like returning to the office as a vaccine for COVID-19 is finalized and now being distributed. The work-from-anywhere model is here to stay, but that doesn't mean we'll be working from home forever.
At some point in 2021, we will welcome a new hybrid model that combines remote work and in-office experiences in a way that unlocks even greater flexibility.
In my role as principal architect of ethical AI practice with Salesforce Einstein, I'm tasked with understanding how the right technology at the right time can provide dynamic solutions to complicated problems. Faced with the onset of COVID-19, companies are utilizing technology to help manage daily operations as the pandemic rages on.
One example is AdventHealth, which needed to rapidly scale service across its call center and website after experiencing more than 1 million hits in just the first two weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.
When the pandemic caused lockdowns and widespread panic, AdventHealth needed to quickly communicate with concerned patients. In just 24 hours, AdventHealth implemented a Salesforce Einstein Bot to triage patients against a series of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended questions before directing them to the appropriate nurse or practitioner for further screening.
Technology like this has been a great tool to help companies adjust to the new needs of consumers and employees during the pandemic. But AI and similar technologies can also play an integral role in supporting companies to adapt and thrive in these times.
1. AI can coordinate complex scheduling
Most manufacturing plants or retail locations have experience developing schedules to cover work that needs to be done by whom and when. Other kinds of organizations, like those in the tech industry, likely haven't experienced being told when they must show up at the office, take a break, get lunch, or leave the building.
Scheduling gets even more difficult with tall buildings like the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, where elevator lobby areas become choke points for traffic and wait times. A schedule might help reduce traffic, but it adds layers of complication when dealing with dozens or even hundreds of people as they enter and leave the building or migrate from floor to floor. Further complicating scheduling is the importance of regular cleaning, as time between shifts is necessary to allow for proper sanitization.
AI is great at optimizing complex schedules and has the potential to make fairer decisions than humans.
We know, for example, that there is a risk that a human (regardless of intentions) might decide not to schedule older workers or those with health problems to come into the workplace because they are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus.
That's not only unfair; it's illegal.
But an AI can be designed to consider only objective and legal factors such as employee availability, schedule openings, and the worker's status (e.g., symptom-free, COVID-negative). Just make sure to closely examine any AI training data for bias and ensure it is representative of your entire employee population. Look at your AI models for sensitive fields like age, race, gender, or health conditions.
2. Health checks can be automated with chatbots
Temperature checks are an important measure to prevent the spread of disease and need to be taken daily, ideally via self-check screenings at home through platforms such as Work.com. Employees also must confirm that they haven't recently tested positive for COVID-19 or possess related symptoms. Companies don't want to wait until people show up before asking them about testing and symptoms, so they need ways of collecting that information in advance.
Technology can help when it comes to these health checks. Granted, we don't want a chatbot to inform people that they may have been exposed to COVID-19; a human should do that. However, once someone has been notified, there's a need to follow up each day for 10 to 14 days to check whether they have tested positive or are experiencing any symptoms.
That tedious task isn't a great use of limited human resources, especially if many people have been exposed, so this is a sensible place to have a chatbot check in and ask those two questions each day.
3. Space can be optimized with AI capabilities
Regardless of the type of work environment, you must examine the size of your space, determine how many people can be accommodated and identify any high-traffic areas where people are most likely to congregate in numbers.
Those clustered areas might be a break room, bathroom, or elevator lobby. Figuring out the maximum number of people you can accommodate in a space can't focus just on the largest common space (e.g., cafeteria, open plan office); you must also critically examine those smaller spaces. How many people should be in the bathroom or an elevator at any given time, and how do we limit it?
Many AI applications can help monitor those areas and develop the proper equations.
Each element is interconnected. You can't think about space planning without schedules and you can't plan schedules without thinking about who to bring back. Managing all these logistics fairly can be overwhelming. You likely need more staff for managing logistics, contact tracing, and corporate communications. If you aren't able to manage these constantly shifting pieces, an outbreak and shutdown will be inevitable.
Ensure everyone has equal access to tools and resources.
Chatbots over SMS will work for everyone, while a chatbot app on a smartphone will work for only some. Also, be transparent about what data you are collecting, how it will be used, and how an employee can have it corrected or deleted. If you are using an AI app that another company created, request a model card so you understand how the AI was trained, what factors are used in the model, and other important information about bias and representativeness.
This is a realistic vision for utilizing technologies to maintain employee well-being. To that end, it's essential to keep at the core of every business decision the adoption of technology that is safe, private, and inclusive for all users. Technology — and artificial intelligence, in particular — can certainly help, and we should leverage it when appropriate.
AI can certainly be a powerful tool to help with all the complex logistical planning that comes with returning to the office during a pandemic. By giving AI tasks that it is most efficient at optimizing or the mundane, repetitive chores that eat up precious time, companies can focus employees on the tasks that require a human touch.
Kathy Baxter is principal architect of Ethical AI Practice at Salesforce.
SEE ALSO: Employees who trust their bosses have more energy, less stress, and fewer sick days. Here are 4 ways to establish trust with your workers, according to a senior vice president at Salesforce.