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5 innovations that can help provide a safer return to the office

From virus prevention strategies to ultra-effective anti-bacterial solutions, tech ventures are developing ways to make workspaces safer.

5 innovations that can help provide a safer return to the office

Many of the some five-million Canadians who have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic might never have to commute, put on a suit or take an elevator to sit at their desk again. Which will satisfy some just fine. According to a Statistics Canada survey from April, 65 percent of Canadians would like to continue their jobs remotely post-pandemic (athleisure wear all day, every day is a big draw). Some employers like it, too. Shopify announced last month that its office will be “digital by default” for the foreseeable future, joining such companies as Facebook, Twitter and OpenText. Among the benefits: lower leasing costs and the potential to hire talent that lives far away from headquarters.

But many businesses and organizations have little choice but to find ways to return to the office. Their services are essential or their work requires special equipment that can’t be transported to their living rooms (laboratories and manufacturing machines, say). The question is, then, can communal workspaces be safer, allowing in-person collaboration while minimizing risk of transition? A growing group of Canadian companies says yes, offering virus prevention strategies, COVID-screening systems and ultra-effective anti-bacterial cleaning solutions. Here, five of the most innovative companies, and how they are might form the health-focused office of the future.

 

Mapping the office of the future

Developing a robust risk strategy gets easier the more an employer knows exactly how their office is used — where people are but shouldn’t be congregating, which spaces get the most traffic and therefore might need the most cleaning, and where there might be extra space to enhance physical distancing. Through its Wi-Fi-based indoor location intelligence platform, Toronto-based InnerSpace enables its clients to develop that understanding for every floor, department and room. If someone develops COVID-19, the tracking mechanism can map out where in the office that person has been, tracing their contacts by tracking their steps. There’s a strong post-COVID-19 application, too: employers who understand the nitty-gritty of how their offices function can make smarter decision about their size, layout and efficiency, potentially saving lease expenditures as well as lives.

 

Assessing the real risks

Minetell was founded in 2017 to help oil, gas and mining companies prevent a repeat of such disasters as Deepwater Horizon (in 2010, the oil rig exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico). Now, the company is applying what it’s learned about risk assessment and strategizing to help many more industries — health care, retail, tech — safeguard against COVID-19. The process starts with a comprehensive review, where every aspect of an organization is scrutinized for potential weak spots. Are there hand sanitizing stations and are they located in the most effective spots? Can employees remain two metres apart? Is the employer conforming to all local health guidelines? More importantly, once any necessary protections are implemented, workplaces are continually monitored, either by survey office managers or through internet of things sensors, to see where troubles persist and further improvements can be made. “Our approach to risk is like the difference between going to a mechanic to verify if a car has brakes and going to a mechanic to ensure the brakes are working as well as possible,” says Minetell CEO Michael Hartley. “We don’t stop refining a strategy until we know it’s optimal.”

 

Creating safe, touch-free entries

Security systems — their wiring and cameras and card readers — are often built into the walls of the buildings they are protecting. This means they’re difficult and expensive to swap out and replace — a challenge for businesses trying to go touch-free to prevent the spread of the virus. Toronto-based BioConnect has developed a mobile app that works with 80 per cent of existing card readers that will soon be piloted at the MaRS Centre. Users simply hold their phones to scan their faces. The app has facial recognition software that triggers the doors to open (no fobs or cards required). As an added layer of security, the app can push a health survey to everyone trying to gain access, asking them to self-identify if they have any coronavirus symptoms (potentially denying entry if they do). The system has the potential to help prevent COVID-19 in other ways, too. It has the capacity to coordinate with other COVID tracking and tracing apps, alerting someone if they have been somehow exposed to the virus. Privacy is paramount when dealing with sensitive health data. “The identity of the employee and their health status will only live on their phone,” says Rob Douglas, CEO of BioConnect. “Anything transmitted by the app is anonymized. The goal is to make things safer while still protecting privacy.”

 

Adding extra safeguards 

Trusscore, a company based in Palmerston, Ont., typically makes walls to separate livestock. Its experience pig farming might not immediately suggest a company preventing the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals, long-term care homes and dental offices. But Trusscore’s experiences have been proving invaluable. Its TempWall system of easy-to-clean, quick-to-install, non-porous barriers can help ensure physical distancing, especially when two metres between people isn’t possible — like in a busy emergency room. A bonus: TempWall’s aesthetics are decidedly non-barn like. Each panel is crisp and white, belying its green credibility. Every panel is 100 percent recyclable, made of a non-toxic, medical-grade PVC coated in an anti-microbial treatment that kills 99 per cent of bacteria.

 

Keeping surfaces virus-free

Because COVID-19 lives on surfaces, sometimes for hours and days, Lysol and other anti-bacterial wipes have been in short supply for months. But even those lucky enough to have a supply know that the cleaning effects don’t last. A surface is only bacteria-free until someone touches it (or breaths or sneezes on it). Guelph, Ontario’s EnvisionSQ has developed a coating that can be applied to almost any high-touch surface — doorknobs, handrails, desks, elevator key pads — that will keep them bacteria-free for up to one year. The coating is photocatalytic, which means that it gets stronger when exposed to light. The Health Canada approval is pending, but Scott Shayko, CEO of EnvisionSQ already has plans to expand the product’s application. “The first version of the coating was developed primarily for use in indoor environments,” he says. “A second version is in development for outdoor applications. This version will be water-resistant and is meant for areas such as playgrounds.”