Buzzing bracelets could become a workplace accessory in the coronavirus era
Are you standing or sitting too close to your co-worker? Soon a bracelet might vibrate to let you know.
Companies are rolling out wearables that will buzz or light up when co-workers aren't maintaining social distance in the workplace. They're part of a flood of new technologies intended to help companies adapt their workplaces to keep people safe amid the global pandemic.
"People are moving around, and you want to have a gentle reminder to maintain social distance," said Campbell Macdonald, the chief executive of Proxxi, a Canadian company that is selling such bracelets. Macdonald says the company has already sold tens of thousands of wristbands that will vibrate when workers are within six feet of each other, the recommend spacing from health officials.
The wristbands, which cost $100, will start shipping to customers at the end of the month.
Ford is already experimenting with Samsung smartwatches in its factories that alert employees when they've gotten too close to each other. Workers at a port in Antwerp, Belgium, are also wearing devices that look like sports watches made by a European company, which give warning signals if they come within five feet of a co-worker.
The wearables highlight the extreme steps that companies may take to ensure workers are complying with social distancing recommendations during the pandemic.
The bracelets underscore just how unrecognizable American workplaces may be as people start returning to them. They're the latest sign of an expected expansion of employee monitoring technology amid the pandemic -- which is raising fresh privacy concerns.
The explosion of tracking technology in the workplace mirrors what's happening in Western countries that are developing contact tracing apps, which would notify someone if they've come into contact with a person who is infected. Most of these initiatives are voluntary for regular consumers, however, and there is a concern workplaces could make using the technologies mandatory for employees. Bracelets would be particularly easy for employers to require because they can easily see if an employee is wearing one or not.
Macdonald says it's up to the employers to make sure their employees are comfortable with the technology and understand its benefits.
"It's not really designed to be a Big Brother solution," he told me.
"If you use it in an open way, and you're transparent with how it's being used and it's used for good, then you're not going to have a problem," he said. "If you're using it in a way that's undermining the trust of your employees, I think you're going to run into more problems."
Many of the buzzing bracelets could also be used for contact tracing.
Proxxi's Halo bracelets also have a contact-tracing feature, where employers can see which of their employees has been in contact with others, registering when and how many times that contact took place. Macdonald says the company does not collect any specific location data, as it relies on Bluetooth technology, making it similar to contact tracing tools that Apple and Google are rolling out.
Macdonald says the bands collect no personal identifying information, and they only record interactions with other bands. He said employers can assign the bands to individual employees to enable the tracing.
"I understand that people are concerned about health data, but we're not revealing health data and we're not storing that," he said. "It's simply just interactions with other people."
Other companies have been rolling out smartphone apps to enable contact tracing in the workplace. PwC has introduced a new contact-tracing tool for companies so they can determine which other workers may need to be tested or quarantined if someone falls ill with the virus.
So far, the social distancing bracelets have been rolled out primarily in industrial settings where workers may already be used to wearing safety equipment.
No one was making bracelets with these features until a few months ago.
Before the pandemic, Proxxi was known for producing bracelets that alerted workers they were approaching a dangerous source of electricity and at risk of electrocution. The company began to explore the social distancing bracelets after existing customers in the construction industry inquired about them. Rombit, the company supplying the Belgian dockworkers, was supplying wearables that alerted workers when vehicles were approaching, or if someone fell into water.
Demand is growing for traditional office settings as well.
Buzzing bracelets are among the many measures businesses are considering as they outfit their workplaces with hands-free technology, plexiglass barriers and hand sanitizer in anticipation of employees' return. Proxxi's bracelets were recently included in the technology section of a "Back to Work" tool kit that venture capital firm Madrona prepared for businesses. Macdonald says he's also received inquiries from the military and government officials.
"Each culture is going to be different based on what the dynamic was before this happened and how they implement the technology," he said.