People

Next up for pandemic tech: A corporate back-to-work app

As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, Appian is the latest to roll out a product that aims to help companies cope.

Empty office

A new app from Appian aims to help corporations safely return employees to offices.

Photo: Susan Fisher Plotner/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From Milan to Sydney to Silicon Valley, Matt Calkins and his 1,350-person global team at enterprise software company Appian watched COVID-19 sweep the globe, paralyze economies and send companies unprepared for mass remote work into disarray.

Now, as governments around the world weigh options to lift lockdown orders, the CEO has a pitch to help large companies go back to work: an app starting at $5,000 a month that will ask employees to input health data, possible virus exposures and details about their jobs to determine when and how they should return to offices, factories and warehouses.

"It's about getting your employees back to work and staging that in a very careful way," Calkins said. "I don't believe it's the case, and neither do our clients, that every employee is going to go back to work all together on day one."

The "Workforce Safety and Readiness" app is an expanded version of a free COVID-19 response app that Appian released last month to allow workers to self-report virus symptoms to employers. This time around, the "employee reentry" app, as Calkins called it, will be sold on a subscription model and target companies with several thousand employees.

As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, Appian is far from the only company to roll out products to help companies cope. The length and depth of economic fallout has catalyzed software and services framed as a potential lifeline for small businesses and startups, plus tools to help large companies wrangle huge distributed workforces.

Health tech companies like Color and industry giants including Amazon, Google and Apple are jumping into the nascent world of employer-sponsored COVID-19 testing or contact tracing. Legacy tech players like IBM and Cisco are offering up a range of tools to bolster cybersecurity, remote connectivity and supply chains. Younger startups such as SoftBank-backed Builder.ai are rolling out their own apps to help small businesses quickly scale ecommerce sales and digital payments.

Calkins realized a business opportunity could emerge from the rapid pace of change soon after his employees shifted to working remotely last month. He plans to use the new app to bring his own workers back as lockdown orders begin to lift in Europe, the U.S. and beyond. The motivation, he said, was two-fold.

"First of all, how do we stay safe?" Calkins said. "Secondly, how does Appian win in this situation?"

The new app builds in CDC guidance and "questions that regional authorities want [companies] to ask," Calkins said, plus more-detailed questions that employers may want answered to assess the risk in bringing a given employee back on site. That could include personal health histories and preexisting conditions, home circumstances like vulnerable family members, or daily temperature readings.

From there, employees enter more pragmatic information about their day-to-day job, which the company can classify as more or less essential to do in person. The app groups workers into tentative "cohorts." Employers can then push their workers information and alerts, including details on their new schedule. Once they return, employees will be able to use the app to report concerns like overcrowding or a lack of provisions like hand sanitizer.

"Businesses want a lot more intelligence about how to do this," Calkins said. Meanwhile, he said, "employees are frankly hypersensitive right now, wondering if they can really trust their employer and how paranoid they should be."

Matt Calkins Appian CEO Matt Calkins said, "If you can't change the way your business works in a day or two, then you've got a problem." Photo: Courtesy of Appian

With any health data-centric product, privacy and security are huge potential pitfalls. In the rush to respond to COVID-19, companies like Amazon that also offer direct health care to their workers could encounter even murkier ethical questions about employee data collection and misaligned financial incentives, especially at a time when tech worker activism is on the rise.

Calkins said Appian built its new app around a HIPAA-compliant cloud system. As for regulation and government oversight of the many approaches companies are considering, normal health privacy requirements may include carve-outs for pandemics.

"Some laws permit exceptions or relaxed enforcement of privacy restrictions in the face of a public health emergency or similar crisis event," a recent National Law Review primer explains. "These exceptions are generally subject to interpretation, and new guidance is being issued as the crisis unfolds."

Exactly how the reopening process could play out is likely to vary from company to company. Many are considering staggered shifts or prolonged remote work for employees whose work is less necessary to do in person. One chief goal is to increase distance between workspaces, perhaps by dropping from 100 employees to 50 on a given floor of an office.

"We need to figure out how to pick the 50 that … stay home," Calkins said, then consider increasing capacity over time based on how the situation progresses. "It's not a light switch. Not at all. It's a thoughtful, phased approach."


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


Though the timeline for reopening remains uncertain in many places, the early lesson he's learned from wading into pandemic tech is that "you've got to make it so easy right now." While worn-out executives and employees are suffering from screen fatigue and universal stress, he's confident that more companies than ever appreciate the need to brace for the unexpected.

"You need to have a platform for change," Calkins said. "If you can't change the way your business works in a day or two, then you've got a problem."

Protocol | Workplace

Instacart workers are on strike. How far can it get them?

Instacart activists want a nationwide strike to start today, but many workers are too afraid of the company and feel they can't afford a day off of work.

Gig workers protest in front of an Amazon facility in 2020.

Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Starting today, an Instacart organizing group is asking the app's gig workers to go on a nationwide strike to demand better payment structures, benefits and other changes to the way the company treats its workers — but if past strikes are any indication, most Instacart users probably won't even notice.

The majority of Instacart workers on forums like Reddit and Facebook appear either unaware of the planned strike or don't plan to participate because they are skeptical of its power, afraid of retaliation from the company or are too reliant on what they do make from the app to be able to afford to take even one day off of the platform. "Not unless someone is going to pay my bills," "It will never work, you will never be able to get every shopper to organize" and "Last time there was a 'strike' Instacart took away our quality bonus pay," are just a few of the comments Instacart shoppers have left in response to news of the strike.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | China

WeChat promises to stop accessing users’ photo albums amid public outcry

A tech blogger claimed that popular Chinese apps snoop around users' photo libraries, provoking heightened public concerns over privacy.

A survey launched by Sina Tech shows 94% of the some 30,000 responding users said they are not comfortable with apps reading their photo libraries just to allow them to share images faster in chats.

Photo: S3studio via Getty Images

A Chinese tech blogger dropped a bombshell last Friday, claiming on Chinese media that he found that several popular Chinese apps, including the Tencent-owned chat apps WeChat and QQ, as well as the Alibaba-owned ecommerce app Taobao, frequently access iPhone users' photo albums in the background even when those apps are not in use.

The original Weibo post from the tech blogger, using the handle of @Hackl0us, provoked intense debates about user privacy on the Chinese internet and consequently prompted WeChat to announce that it would stop fetching users' photo album data in the background.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.

Protocol | Enterprise

As businesses struggle with data, enterprise tech is cleaning up

Enterprise tech's vision of "big data" largely fell flat inside silos. But now, an army of providers think they've figured out the problems. And customers and investors are taking note.

Corporate data tends to settle in silos that makes it harder to understand the bigger picture. Enterprise tech vendors smell a lucrative opportunity.

Photo: Jim Witkowski/Unsplash

Data isn't the new oil; it's the new gold. And in any gold rush, the ones who make the most money in the long run are the tool makers and suppliers.

Enterprise tech vendors have long peddled a vision of corporate America centered around so-called "big data." But there was a big problem: Many of those projects failed to produce a return. An army of new providers think they've finally figured out the problem, and investors and customers are taking note.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Policy

What Frances Haugen’s SEC complaint means for the rest of tech

Haugen argues Facebook misled investors by failing to disclose its platforms' harms. If the SEC bites, the rest of tech could be next.

The question is whether the SEC will find the contents of Haugen's complaint relevant to investors' interests.

Photo: Matt McClain-Pool/Getty Images

Whistleblowers like former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen have pretty limited options when it comes to actually seeking redress for the harms they've observed and documented. There's no federal privacy law in the U.S. to speak of, Section 230 protects platforms for online speech and companies like Facebook are under no obligation to share any information with lawmakers, or anyone else, about what's happening on their sites.

But there is one agency that not only governs all publicly-traded companies, including in tech, but also offers whistleblowers like Haugen the opportunity for a payout: the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Latest Stories