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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."


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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."

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