2020 and the global pandemic that hit us full force, has exposed the vulnerability of business and people, unfortunately in a way that does not seem to be readily eliminated despite all the resources focused on it. COVID-19 presents a serious threat to life, and to all steps of essential and industrial business, from manufacturing through to supply chain and delivery.
It is an issue that governments and businesses all over the world are grappling with. How to keep business open and safe in a strategic way rather than reacting with short-term measures that negatively affect workplaces and their supply chains. Whether we face this threat for only a few more months, or it extends into years, we need to allow our businesses, and most importantly their workforces, some form of stability and with that stability protection and safety.
As expected, last year saw a huge appetite for automated technology to increase the safety of staff and manage risk to operations under threat from COVID-19 outbreaks. Our focus at Nirovision has been to help essential workplaces around the country facilitate this while maintaining the highest level of privacy for their staff, contractors, visitors and all other stakeholders.
To better understand all the measures businesses are taking, between September to October of 2020, Nirovision commissioned market research with more than 200 Australian businesses to understand how they are dealing with the COVID-19 threat.
This included questions on how long they feel the threat will last, their confidence in their current COVID plans and how they are protecting their employees.
The respondents came from a range of different sectors including:
With the commonality that they all worked in industrial workplaces that needed to stay open to operate and that respondents held some form of responsibility for workplace safety.
The research, commissioned by Nirovision, was independently undertaken by Taverner Research from 25th of September to 6 of October 2020, and included 201 industrial workplaces.
Following the research, we convened a Roundtable in December 2020 with senior figures in the business, security, and supply chain sectors to explore what more needs to be done to keep Australia, and indeed the world, open for business.
“From a readiness perspective, the reality of how you have to react in a real COVID outbreak versus your expectations can vary widely because until it occurs in reality, you don’t have direct contact with the department of human services and health services and know what their demands are, so we learned a lot about what we needed after that outbreak to strengthen the plan for all other sites”.
Michael Brown CMO, Visium Networks
COVID-19 response plans exist in nearly all organisations that participated in the survey, this included more than 200 companies operating in the Manufacturing, Warehouse and Logistics, Food Services, Medical Services, Mining, and Construction sectors.
There is also a high level of confidence in these plans to keep employees and workplaces safe and operational.
The Roundtable participants felt that the confidence level was too high and may not translate into reality when tested. There was general agreement that the reality of dealing with an outbreak can be very different to the best laid plans with rapidly changing guidelines, unknown timeframes, rumours, and general panic among staff.
Some participants feel that our greatest challenge still lies ahead when staff and management become tired of the COVID precautions and when we have reached enough COVID free days to seem unnecessary. While some technologies will be kept for their business benefits, others may fade and perhaps be dodged by staff when the immediate threat lessens.
Can we really ensure that what we have learnt from both history and hindsight will guarantee a smoother road ahead to implementing and launching the right mechanics and processes?
Can we encourage and not enforce people to stick to a new normal plan that will truly resonate as opposed to feel forced and imposed upon?
However, other participants believe that consumer and as a result employee behaviour has changed forever. That we are becoming pre-programmed to scan and check ourselves into bars, restaurants and workplaces and understand the need to provide data in return for access.
The participants identified that a culture of transparency and trust with employees is important to ensure safety protocols are followed in the workplace.
"When you can show employees that you have their interest at heart, it greatly improves team morale. You need to show that while you are implementing certain processes to follow the law, you are also doing it for team wellbeing. We need to make it safe for people to be at work and understand their anxiety about that. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable in the workplace, that they don’t have any questions or fears about it."
Clint Wolff, Managing Director, Innovative Security & Data
We asked participants whether moving forward, COVID response plans should be sector mandated for quality control like environmental or waste management standards.
Some participants thought that was a good idea but that it should be self-managed by companies rather than enforced at a Government or industry level.
Other participants felt it would be too hard to set a standard given the wide range of business sizes and resources available to implement and maintain those standards. It wasn’t a matter of one size fits all given the myriad of variables that encompasses each sector vertical. Given the enormity and impact of industry standards, any would need to ensure they were perfectly placed to that industries needs and requirements.
"Rather than considering from a company or sector level, look at this from a country level. Countries that had experienced pandemics previously and recently such as the Avian Flu and N1H1 − did a much better job at responding to COVID-19, much quicker than countries who had didn’t have pandemic experience, Taiwan for example. They were very quickly super restrictive with imposing a quarantine on international travellers, encouraging isolation and contact tracing within the first week. Australia struggled to bring those things in months later. So, if we had another pathogen that posed a similar threat then Australian businesses will certainly respond a lot quicker than the first time."
Michael Brown, CMO, Visium Networks
Most respondents (68%) indicated that a potential COVID-19 outbreak at their workplace premises would have either a significant or very significant impact on business operations. In comparison, only 1 in 5 of respondents indicated that a potential outbreak would have only a moderate impact on business operations.
When prompted to provide details of how business operations would be impacted, the most common responses mentioned were the business/ sites needing to shutdown (28%) and reduced or halted production and operations (20%).
When asked whether we have yet seen the full impact of COVID on our industrial workplaces, there were mixed feelings.
Some participants felt that as we have developed solutions and advanced technology to deal with outbreaks, especially in the protein sector, we will be a lot more prepared next time around, especially with contact tracing, and as a result are prepared to better mitigate impacts.
Other participants are sure that if we let our guard down it will come back, and particularly in this period before everyone is vaccinated. As people start to travel again and relax their vigilance, it is easy for third waves to occur as we are seeing both here in Australia and around the world.
All agreed that especially now, it’s important to keep up the COVID response processes such as temperature checks and making sure staff who don’t feel well stay at home.
Things are a bit more relaxed, but you never know what is around the corner. It was noted that for certain sectors such as food manufacturing and processing, if a site shuts down, people won’t eat. So, all along the supply chain process from processing to distribution centres and supermarkets cannot just close and work remotely and the impact of closed operations, even for a few days, is significant.
For an industry that has been in decline (at its peak in the 1950s, Australian manufacturing accounted for almost 30% GDP, while in 2019, Australian manufacturing accounted for just 6% GDP), the event of COVID-19 might just revive it, with our reliance on overseas goods a point to tackle moving forward. As hundreds of thousands of Australians began losing their jobs, the manufacturing industry continued to operate, employing approximately 10% of the Australian population (a statistic worth celebrating as national unemployment rates peaked at 7.5%).
The provision of hand sanitizer/ wipes, encouragement of face mask use and social distancing were the most implemented procedures (63%-65%) to combat a potential COVID-19 outbreak amongst those surveyed.
All participants noted that existing technology was utilised well for COVID response plans as well as investing in new technology.
"We were already working on check in, check out as a complex industrial solution to include fundamental and health and safety, such as making sure people are inducted before they get in a site. It turns out it is the same problem you are trying to solve when you are looking at contact tracing, so it was fortuitous to be there to be able to implement that. But even just CCTV in the security industry, in general, contributed well. For example, while it’s a little bit manual, it’s still a very good contact tracing solution. I know companies where management spent a few days on their CCTV system piecing together where people had been after an outbreak. And without that basic video recall that would have been near impossible."
Michael Brown, CMO, Visium Networks
"In many organisations, the infrastructure is already in place to be able to deploy things like contract tracing or to add identification tracing to existing security cameras but there is too much red tape to get through to try and implement for a new reason. For example, while I see corporates manage that quite well, government sites I believe were managed quite poorly. For example one corporate client was able to be nimble and shut a site down, move staff, do a deep clean, and isolate everyone at home while still trading after an outbreak, as they could move and share data quickly across the whole organisation. Government agencies don’t have those infrastructures in place yet, as their information and processes are all tied up in individual networks and you cannot get on there. This is a lesson for the sector. If you can remotely troubleshoot it’s very important moving forward. And now the red tape is now starting to un-do a little bit."
Clint Wolff, Managing Director, Innovative Security & Data
Most respondents (77%) indicated that their workplace would be very likely or somewhat likely to invest in new technology to help keep their employees and workplace COVID-safe, with a lower proportion (67%) indicating that their workplace would be very likely or somewhat likely to invest in facial recognition temperature screening technology specifically.
All participants noticed an increase in either their own automated identity technology investment or in their clients’ investments, partly due to the COVID response effect and due to general digital transformation, perhaps kickstarted by realising the different business advantages of automated identification after implementing as a COVID measure.
Indeed, the introduction of no-touch technology across many sectors has seen a substantial reduction in staff sick days and the cost of sick leave in general.
"I think the good technology that gets excellent traction and becomes a broadly adopted technology are the ones that cover a number of applications and do it extremely well. For example, with the identification technology that Nirovision provides, it can be used for temperature checking and contact tracing but also for time management and payroll with check in/check out, identification of key customers and suppliers, for security with access control and for health and safety reasons to know who is onsite and offsite. These multi-purpose tools provide huge efficiencies and the greatest return on investment."
Michael Brown, CMO, Visium Networks
As debated many a time, the uses of technology if used appropriately can be a marvellous investment to be welcomed not feared. Business technological investment with transparency around why such tech is in place can lead to multiple benefits of all kinds that don’t impinge on the privacy of the individual.
Now our workforces need even more protection in COVID times, so it makes sense that we look to more advanced technology to help us do that. And technology such as facial recognition, or biometric data, has also migrated from the highest level of secured access facilities to an everyday presence on our computers, hand-held devices, and phones. We are used to using facial recognition or thumbprints to unlock our smartphones, search our photos faster and play on social media. So it need not necessarily be such a concern when it comes to business.
When people use the technology in their personal life, they feel they are in control and that its use or storage is under their directive. While this is not necessarily the case, installing a facial recognition technology can potentially concern some employees or visitors for privacy reasons but it doesn’t need to be the case. The next part delves into this point further.
When asked about introducing automated identity recognition to the workplace, participants said that in a post COVID world, employees are more open to allowing data to be captured but key to acceptance was education and communication.
Michael Brown added:
” Like the dialogue we are seeing about social media, it’s all about the intent and the business model behind the technology that is the critical thing that people need to understand, particularly the end-user.”
Clint Wolff added:
“Employees may ask is this company going to use my data for nefarious purposes, and exploit my information for advertising purposes as per social media? But we are in the security space, and our business model is to protect people’s assets and tie them up, not share them. Businesses want to protect their workforce and their assets. The litmus test is where the data is stored and how it is protected.
One of the big trends in 2021 is managing the implications of industrial manslaughter laws in the ACT, Queensland, Victoria and the NT (currently before parliament in WA). As well as the fact that it may be possible that directors of businesses who fail to take adequate precautions to protect workers from contracting COVID-19 may face these criminal charges in the future, the duty of care for staff onsite falls to every CEO, chairman and managing director.
Some of my clients are now building flexible working environments where staff may work from home, but they also want them to come into work in creative, collaborative spaces and even use the building, or facilities, after hours for their own use.
This means that access controls need to be stepped up so there is management knowledge of who is on the premises, especially at weekends and after hours.”
"COVID has proven, especially with offices, that you can trust your staff to work well whether from the office or home. While the office will always be around, now the onus is on management to invest so staff want to come in and collaborate in the workplace. We’re not going back to the way we were, so we need to manage that flexibility and security. "
Christian Beck, Founder, Australian Technology Innovators & Nirovision
The duty of care that every executive leader needs to own and portray, cannot be underestimated – and technology can help with that. Corporate behaviours are changing as employers become more intune with their rights and with that comes a newly defined responsibility on the shoulders of the employers who are responsible for their workers safety – both physically and mentally. That means being cognizant of where their workers are at all times when on work premises – not to track for untowrads purposes but to track for safety and protection.
More than half (57%_ of respondents believe that their workplace will return to a pre-COVID level of normality in less than a year, with around a third (31%) believing that normality will return between 1 and 2 years. Only 7% of respondents believed that their workplace will not return to. apre-COVID level of normality until 2 years or more.
Accessibility is key in how we can manage responsibility for the security of a workplace alongside more freedom and flexibility. This is where automated identification technology can really help as its no-touch, on 24/7 and requires no staffing. I think people are more comfortable with this tech post COVID and it gives better flexibility while managing all health and safety responsibilities.
Looking at industrial workplaces, and particularly the supply chain, participants agreed that returning to normality will need to see an increase in protocols in that log entry and departure questions on international products as well as enforcing vaccination testing and investigations for international business travellers. With the supply chain a 24/7 operation, increased flexibility in the technology that records and facilitates the business process is always welcomed.
"...employees are more comfortable sharing data with a company they trust than a government or social media company whose business model is to exploit that information "
Christian Beck, Founder, Australian Technology Innovators & Nirovision
Participants disagreed that sharing too much personal data is that the price that we must pay for this new normal.
For all participants, it comes back to the business model and the platform you are dealing with. Even though staff, suppliers and visitors can be identified through technology such as facial recognition, it doesn’t necessarily compromise their privacy. If the data is protected, for example, associated with just a coded ID, and the company doesn’t do anything else with it, there is no privacy issue.
Christian Beck warned that if governments keep an eye on these sorts of technologies to make sure no one company propagates and becomes too big like the social media organisations, there is no threat.
“Companies want people to work for them in their workplace, so there is no incentive to sell data. These technologies are here to improve safety and health, and everyone wants that. Also, employees are more comfortable sharing data with a company they trust than a government or social media company whose business model is to exploit that information”.
And while during the Roundtable, the threat had begun to recede, at the time of writing another COVID outbreak has again shut Sydney down and forced us all to change our Christmas plans, resulting in many other States closing their borders and forcing the cancellation of great Australian Summer traditions such as the Sydney to Hobart boat race. The warnings about remaining vigilant seem very pertinent.
Whether the health and safety measures introduced this year will be retained as the threat fades, most if not all industry sectors have gone through a rapid digital transformation.
New technologies and adaptive existing technologies are allowing greater flexibility in how we work and how our time, security and health are managed.
This last period has gifted us with numerous insights on how better to run our companies and become not only more efficient from a technological perspective but also from a continuous improvement process and people process.
As a country and as an industry, we are now openly talking about many topics that can no longer remain on the shelf or in the broom cupboard. From privacy and security to business processes and employer responsibility we’ve turned a significant corner in discussing these topics head-on and working to end solutions that will only see Australia and its serving industries be better and stronger for it.
If you are interested in exploring any of the ideas outlined in the whitepaper, please contact us or one of the participants.
Nirovision would like to thank our expert participants for generously sharing their time, experience, and advice and creating a space to talk openly about a critical topic that impacts almost every employer, employee and consumer in Australia.
Nirovision Consultant & Roundtable Facilitator
Founder of Australian Technology Innovators & Nirovision
Managing Director of Innovative Security & Data
CMO of Visium Networks
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