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Businesses Tap New Digital Tools to Reopen the Workplace

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Businesses Tap New Digital Tools to Reopen the Workplace

Enterprise information-technology firms are rolling out digital tools designed to help employers deal with a range of workplace issues arising from Covid-19, as companies begin planning for an eventual return to the office.

They include workplace apps for employee health checks and contact tracing, among other on-site tools.

Just getting workers to the office can be a challenge, amid ongoing travel restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic, said Gaston Silva Maldonado, project and systems analyst at Chilean food processor giant Agrosuper SA.

“Our employees have been prevented from moving from one city to another, or even from one point of the city to another,” Mr. Maldonado said, citing local lockdown rules. Based in Rancagua, Agrosuper employs about 3,500 office workers, in addition to thousands more in its production plants. So far, he said, only administrative staff and production plant workers deemed essential have returned to the workplace.

With the Chilean government in July announcing a five-week plan to gradually ease travel restrictions within the country, the company is hoping to bring back more in the weeks ahead.

To do that, Agrosuper has started using robotic process automation to scan and relay employment data on its more than 12,000 workers to a government website that issues emergency travel passes required at health checkpoints scattered throughout the country.

The passes indicate that the worker is essential, as defined by the government, based on proof of their continued employment and role within the company drawn from

SAP SE’s

SuccessFactors, a cloud-based human-capital-management tool.

The software bot, developed by robotic-software maker UiPath Inc., emails approved passes directly to employees, enabling them to commute to the office, Mr. Maldonado said. He said the bot completed the task in just five hours, compared with several days a handful of employees were taking to do it by hand.

As with Agrosuper, most companies’ efforts to bring employees back to the workplace will involve some form of automated digital technology, especially robotic process automation, analysts say.

Plexiglass dividers and floor decals might not be permanent, but the pandemic will bring lasting change to offices. Experts from the architecture and real-estate industries share how they are getting back to work and what offices will look like in the future. Photo: Cesare Salerno for The Wall Street Journal

Nearly half of 160 corporate executives surveyed in June by enterprise tech research firm

Forrester Research Inc.

said they expect to increase spending on robotic process automation by more than 5% in the year ahead, spurred by the pandemic.

Many businesses already use software bots to handle mundane office tasks such as processing paperwork, reviewing expense reports or answering customer queries. Expanding the use of these bots will enable companies to maintain social distancing requirements by bringing smaller groups of workers back in shifts, among other benefits, Forrester says.

Guidelines issued in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said employers should conduct a thorough hazard assessment of the workplace, among other safety efforts. They include identifying common areas, such as meeting and break rooms, where employees are likely to come into close contact with each other, the agency said.

Enterprise software maker

Appian Corp.

recently launched an employee-monitoring app designed to aggregate real-time health checkups and personal survey responses into a central dashboard, said Matt Calkins, the company’s founder and chief executive.

The tool, which Appian has deployed in-house, alerts company managers to any potential health risks. If the symptoms are severe, an employee may be blocked from entering the office, Mr. Calkins said, adding that data used by the system is secure and stored in the cloud.

Employees provide the information on a voluntary basis.

“When you have a Covid case, or a suspected case, you have to act,” he said.

Related CIO Journal Coverage

An app created by cloud-based enterprise software company

ServiceNow Inc.

uses workplace Wi-Fi data from

Juniper Networks Inc.

to identify employee interactions in the office by zones and time periods.

Once a worker self-reports as a potential risk, Juniper can identify all individuals who may have come into contact with the worker by correlating where users were connected to the network’s Wi-Fi access points on desktops and mobile devices, as well as wireless Bluetooth connections.

The tool is part of a suite of Covid-19 workplace applications developed by ServiceNow, which includes a real-time inventory-management system for tracking personal protection equipment.

It consists of a dashboard that displays a comprehensive view of an organization’s safety-equipment stockpile, broken down by facility or unit, and aggregates data on the entire workplace with historical data on how equipment levels have varied over time, ServiceNow said.

More than 550 companies world-wide have started using the apps, according to a company spokeswoman.

Tracy Doaks, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, said the state began using ServiceNow’s PPE tool in July. She said it enables officials to ensure state agencies “are meeting the physical safety needs of our workforce.”

Write to Angus Loten at angus.loten@wsj.com

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