PwC develops contact-tracing app for coronavirus and looks to reopen offices

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PricewaterhouseCoopers has developed a contact-tracing app as the Big Four firm looks forward to reopening its offices during the coronavirus pandemic and tries to help its clients safely open theirs as more states announce plans to gradually lift their stay-at-home orders.

PwC US chair and senior partner Tim Ryan described the firm’s plans along with the results of its latest "CFO Pulse" survey, examining how CFOs anticipate changing their workplace safety measures as their organizations return to on-site work.

“First and foremost, the safety of our employees, both mental and physical, will continue to be our top priority, and at a minimum, we’re following CDC, federal, state and local directives, and then we’re looking for ways to go beyond that, beyond the guidance to make sure our employees’ health comes first,” said Ryan during a conference call with reporters Monday. “Our guiding principle is to communicate transparently and frequently with our people so they understand where they stand, so they have access to the resources that we provide to them, and so we can get their feedback to ensure that they feel safe, both in terms of at the workplace, but also dealing with working virtually.”

PwC’s staff and partners have been working remotely with each other and with clients, but the firm is planning to return to its offices around the U.S. and around the world when it’s safe to do so. “We want to make sure that we don’t rush back and that we are also making sure, in fact, that we can deliver well today because the workforce is so tech enabled,” said Ryan. “Some of the safety measures that we will use when we come back will include reconfigured office spaces for social distancing; requiring masks not only to be worn at work, but during transit and around the offices; plexiglass shields and other PPE for people who support our professionals, such as IT and other groups within our offices; temperature checks at offices; and also clearly making sure we send the message if someone is not feeling well, if someone is in a high-risk category, or if someone is caring for an individual who is in a high-risk category, that our people stay at home.”

PwC has been testing an Automatic Contact Tracing check-in app that it plans to share with its clients to help them keep track of cases of coronavirus. “We are also going to be leveraging our own suite of products that we call Check-In to make sure we keep our people safe,” said Ryan. “Our Automatic Contact Tracing tool is part of that suite of products, and it allows us to specifically identify employees that may have been exposed to another employee that has tested positive for COVID-19 and allows us to notify those employees real-time. We designed and built this product for our own use, and we’re also making it available to our clients as one of the ways we’re working to limit the spread of the virus and help others do the same as well.”

PwC has been developing geolocation technology tools for several years in its connected solutions group, but the recent coronavirus outbreak spurred development of the new app.

“We’ve been in the business of thinking about indoor geolocation and how to use ambient signals to figure out where things are for several years, but when the COVID crisis started to hit several weeks ago and when it started to hit heavily, we ran into a situation at PwC where we had some COVID-positive cases,” said David Sapin, a principal in PwC’s connected solutions group, during an interview last week with Accounting Today. “The process we went through was to try to identify the other employees who had come into contact with those individuals was pretty long and arduous, and it wasn’t very precise. We ended up coming out with emails and trying to determine if you were on this pool or in this period of time over the last 14 days, you may or may not have come into contact with someone with COVID. So we started looking into a technology solution for that within connected solutions, and what we came up with was Automatic Contact Tracing.”

An employee downloads an app on their phone, and it turns the phone into a beacon or an observer of signals. “The employee puts in some sort of identifier — their email address or their employee ID — and then as soon as they’ve walked into the confines of their office, the phone starts seeing signals in the building," said Sapin. "It sees other phones.”

As employees are walking around the workplace, their phones detect each other’s devices. “At that point it’s completely anonymized,” said Sapin. “It’s just the ID on each phone seeing each other, but it’s not linked back to an employee’s name or contact information. What happens then is when an employee comes to HR and lets them know that they’ve been diagnosed with COVID, the HR department or another authorized user puts the name of the employee who has contracted COVID-19 or another infectious disease [in a portal]. It links that person’s name or ID to their phone and then it identifies all the other phones that phone came into contact with over the previous 14 days or 21 days. It’s up to HR or management to define what that lookback period is. It identifies all the other phones that that phone came into contact with and associates those phones with the names of the people who signed up and downloaded the app. What HR gets quickly and precisely is a list of all the individuals that came into contact with the person who let us know that they had COVID over the past, let’s say, 14 days.”

The technology then rates the level of contact as either high, medium or low, based on the strength of the signal. For example, if the two employees were sitting in a conference room together, there would be a strong signal similarity, and that would be a higher rating. “If we saw each other 10 times in a day, or 20 times in a day, it would be a higher level, whereas if we just passed each other in the hallway, it probably would be on the lower level," said Sapin. “HR takes that data. They can export it, and then the HR department would contact the individuals and tell them to do whatever they need to do according to their policies, whether that’s quarantine or whatever it may be.”

The data is later anonymized to protect employee privacy. Most of PwC’s offices have been closed for more than six weeks, but the firm has been testing out the technology in one office in Shanghai, China, which remains open. The technology has been attracting interest from PwC clients who are looking for such solutions.

“There are a lot of companies right now that do have essential employees coming in, so we’ve had a lot of interest from our clients with employees that need to deploy this as quickly as possible,” said Sapin. “Then we’re having a lot of discussions with companies where, over the past couple of weeks, the dialogues have increased about what returning to the office looks like. What are the types of controls that need to be put in place to make sure that the work environment is safe for our employees to come back to, whether it’s at the end of May or whenever it might be.”

He differentiates it from the contact-tracing app that Apple and Google have announced they are collaborating on developing. While the PwC app would work only within its own offices or those of a client, the app being developed by the tech giants is meant to function across a wide area on more of a societal level.

PwC’s chairman sees more demand from clients for such technology and the firm’s latest CFO Pulse survey examined how companies are planning to bring their employees back to work in a safe manner. “One of the things I'm most encouraged by is virtually every company we speak with, they have put the health, safety and well-being of their employees as their top priority,” said Ryan. “As they think about coming back to work, that is first and foremost on their mind. And while there are a number of other issues to consider with going back to work, we are consistently seeing the theme of employee safety at the very, very top of the list.”

The survey polled 305 U.S. CFOs and finance leaders this month, and found that 77 percent of the respondents anticipate changing workplace safety measures upon returning to on-site work. As employers focus on protecting their workers, 65 percent expect to reconfigure their work sites to promote physical distancing and 52 percent anticipate changing and/or alternating shifts to reduce exposure. In addition, nearly half the respondents (49 percent) anticipate turning to remote working as a permanent option for the roles that will allow it.

“There is widespread recognition that the physical space and the customer experience is going to be drastically different than it was pre-COVID-19,” said Amity Millhiser, PwC US vice chair and chief clients officer, during Monday’s conference call. “This is a sign that the companies are increasingly realizing their important role in ensuring the health and safety of their communities, both their workforce as well as customers.”

Companies are increasingly looking to technologies and digital solutions that are being developed and rolled out to help them adapt and maintain physical distancing, she noted, pointing to PwC’s Automatic Contact Tracing app as an example. “Today, 22 percent of the CFOs plan to do some sort of contact tracing, but I expect both workers and employees to look more toward this kind of technology,” said Milhiser. “Workforce health and safety will increasingly become a really critical job benefit, and companies will likely leverage more tech solutions to help both in traditional office environments, as well as increasing the percentage of workforces working remotely.”

As states start to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen their local economies, 52 percent of the survey respondents said their businesses could return to normal in less than three months if COVID-19 were to end immediately.

However, many business leaders are considering layoffs as they look to contain costs during the pandemic. The survey found that nearly one-third (32 percent) of the respondents are now anticipating layoffs, up 6 points from two weeks ago, and more than half (53 percent) of the respondents said they are projecting revenue/profit losses to be greater than 10 percent this year. “You're seeing a much higher anticipation of layoffs in traditional manufacturing sectors and a much lower percentage of layoffs in areas like financial services,” said Milhiser.

Companies are taking a closer look at their supply chain as shortages become more evident around the world. Where necessary, they’re doing scenario planning for alternate suppliers.

Even though more employees are working remotely now, PwC is seeing signs of increased employee productivity, according to its latest biweekly survey of CFOs. ”Productivity, which we've talked about and tracked for the last few weeks, has started to improve,” said Bhushan Sethi, global people and organization co-leader at PwC. “Originally, it was 60 percent. Last time it was down to 46 percent, it’s now down to 40 percent. Forty percent of the CFOs are anticipating losses through productivity. So, it’s not at a perfect level, but it’s definitely improving. And so the combination of more remote work on a permanent basis, or for the foreseeable future, plus the focus on improving that productivity, is critical for our clients.”

Companies are trying to make the work-from-home environment more comfortable for employees. “What they're also realizing is they need to make the home experience as beneficial as they can to productivity,” said Sethi. “So we still see that 50 percent of them are making employee protections available. They're also looking at their benefits and well-being programs — whether it's access to broadband, whether it's access to childcare when that's available in different parts of the U.S., all the other factors that help an employee's ability to work productively at home is a critical part of that.”

As various states gradually reopen around the U.S., some of PwC’s clients are looking into how their employees can safely return back to work, especially businesses that are consumer-facing or need access to tools, as in a factory, or need to be on-site for compliance reasons, such as traders on a trading floor in the financial services industry. While 65 percent of the respondents anticipate reconfiguring worksites to promote physical distancing, only 10 percent of the CFOs polled are looking at offering hazard pay, and only 9 percent are looking at customizing benefits to encourage people to travel, such as by offering sanitized buses and childcare.

“Where firms can, they're saying, ‘Let's make remote work, work as long as we can,’” said Sethi. “Where people have to be onsite, they're looking at primarily leading with physical safety.”

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PwC Apps Coronavirus Practice management Workplace safety and security