Cost-benefit of social distancing technologies

For industrial organizations, operating in the world before the COVID-19 crisis was no walk in the park, according to LNS Research [¹].  Complexity, change, and uncertainty was already the order of the day, presenting a continually evolving risk environment to be dealt with. In response, companies were embracing Industrial Transformation as the strategic framework to drive step-change performance improvement and competitive advantage.

The simple truth is that there is an inexorable drive to do more with less as witnessed by the rise in automation, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI).  But many sectors either do not have access to or indeed need these tools and rely almost exclusively on white and blue-collar workers for their productivity.  What exactly is productivity? Productivity describes various measures of the efficiency of production.  Often, a productivity measure is expressed as the ratio of aggregate output to a single input or an aggregate input used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input, typically over a specific time period.

UK productivity, or rather the lack of it, was already on the political, business, and public-sector agendas long before the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics estimated that output per hour worked in the United Kingdom in 2015 was 15.9 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. This is despite the July 2015 publication of a Government plan to increase productivity.  But the COVID-19 pandemic at a stroke reduced productivity in some cases to zero as many companies were forced wholesale to close to stop the spread of the virus.  And for those that did continue e.g. UK construction, they saw an unprecedented 35% productivity loss [²].

Linking productivity with health & wellbeing

The so-called second wave has been treated differently, as more has been learned and as a result, many white-collar workers now routinely work from home seemingly without a drop in productivity, in fact just the opposite [³].  Significant evidence also exists [⁴] supporting the link between wellbeing at work and productivity, wellbeing including physical and mental health. ‘Good work’, jobs that are skilled, autonomous, supported, secure, safe with good work-life balance and a good income is associated with better physical and mental health, and less absenteeism.  This translates to an estimated 8-15% impact on productivity.

For blue-collar workers, however, the need has been to return to the workplace.  The pandemic has, therefore, hastened employer investments in a broad application of technology, and specifically, 85% of responders according to a McKinsey survey [⁵] stated that they had accelerated adoption of digitization for employee interaction and collaboration. 

Industry Response

The LNS research also discovered the types of actions that industrial organizations took to mitigate safety and operational risks. They conducted surveys on response actions at two points in time: March 2020 in the early phases of the pandemic, and three months later.  The most common response was obviously updating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements for the frontline workforce, administrative controls such as staggering shift start and stop times, and implementing rotating shifts were used heavily, especially in the early phase.  Much greater emphasis was placed on more permanent engineering and operational controls such as re-configuring production process flow to improve physical distancing of personnel. This has the unexpected benefit of creating new opportunities for lean manufacturing according to a recent on-line article (⁶), a watchword for efficiency and hence productivity gains.

The business case for ‘smart wearables’

Getting people back to work has an immediate impact on productivity but there are equally employee concerns regarding their ongoing health and safety.  So there has also been a focus on the use of Connected Worker and related digital technologies which has gained traction, including smart wearables, to help maintain distancing.  The latter has been shown to support a back to work strategy and to nudge behaviors in order to maintain compliance [⁷].  For less than the cost of a cup of coffee per employee per week for a typical wearable tag (in the first year) you would only need to gain 12 minutes per week of additional output through employees feeling safer and supported in order to gain a payback (based on a US average salary of ~ $50K/annum and a 40-hour week).  It is likely that the ROI would be significantly more.  And if the use of a contact tracing functionality, potentially infected workers could be isolated, and a productivity crisis averted. 

This was the case at Highways England’s A14 project office which reopened after a six-day closure for deep cleaning after a member of staff tested positive for COVID-19 and it is believed that the need for full closure and wide-spread self-isolation could have been avoided through the use of such technology.

In summary, happy, healthy workers are more productive particularly ones who may otherwise have concerns for their personal safety because of COVID-19.  Keeping the wheels of industry and commerce turning is supported by smart technology investments as the UK looks to get its productivity back on track and indeed to the pre-COVID levels enjoyed by its International competitors.

References

1.       Exec Summary.  Connected worker, LNS Research. Enable operational agility with a digitally connected workforce

2.       https://www.enr.com/articles/49619-analysis-covid-19-causes-35-productivity-loss-at-uk-projects

3.       https://emailanalytics.com/15-working-from-home-productivity-statistics/

4.       https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/case-linking-employee-wellbeing-productivity/

5.       Survey: What 800 executives envision for the post-pandemic workforce, McKinsey, September 23rd, 2020

6.       https://aqmauditing.com/quality-management/lean-manufacturing-in-the-age-of-covid-19/

7.       Review of social distancing technology, Casella, Autumn 2020.