Business planners should look beyond the coming winter: multi-function access control and visitor management solutions can solve many of the operational challenges they are facing.

As we head towards the predicted challenges of winter, many streets in our city centres remain eerily quiet, and many offices blocks are still deserted.

City planners are wondering what the future will hold for cities. Will our high-rise buildings and business centres reinvent themselves, or will they suffer a slow decay that takes years to become fully evident?

If history is anything to go by, great cities usually bounce back – and often better than before. New people and ambitious businesses are always drawn by the opportunities and energy they offer.

But change is inevitable, and that includes changes to the way businesses operate.

Currently, many office-centric employers are not yet reporting any serious negative impact on productivity. There is some scepticism about the reliability of self-reported performance figures, and some analysts foresee problems in a number of areas. They worry about how well organisations will cope with maintaining sales performance, onboarding new staff, meeting duty of care for home workers, managing the psychological impact of increased isolation, and whether they’ve properly considered the loss of that creative spark that comes from having close contact with a diversity of people and ideas.

Many employees are happy with the convenience of home working, with their improved work-life balance, and the cost savings from no longer having to commutes. For many, these benefits outweigh the downsides of more drawn-out working hours and the blurring of the boundaries between home and work.

At the same time, many organisations – especially those operating from multi-floor, city-based and town centre offices, or campuses – are yet to implement the root-and-branch changes needed to adapt to the new normal.  Some experts are warning that a second pandemic wave could have far worse economic impact than the first, and that’s before companies have even properly assessed and adapted to what’s already happened.

It’s perhaps no surprise that many organisations say they have no plans to properly re-open until 2021. In August, a major BBC survey found that 50 of the UK’s biggest employers had no immediate plans to reopen their offices for all staff.

So rather than rushing through new policies and adopting questionable tech fixes (such as the much-hyped thermal cameras, touted for fever screening) many larger organisations are taking time to develop more sensible strategies.

For example, they are evaluating technologies – including contact tracing – to minimise the risk of infection. Simply put, contact tracing involves the identification, monitoring, and support of individuals who have been exposed to an infected person and who have therefore possibly been infected themselves. Supported by pre-defined processes, these systems can help prevent further transmission by separating people who have (or may have) COVID-19 from those who don’t.

In some sectors, hospitality for example, the ability to contact trace may become mandatory rather than voluntary.

Because it is not just office-based businesses that are struggling to grapple with the second wave challenge. Logistics centres and food processing facilities have also been highlighted as potential COVID hotspots. We’ve already seen reputational damage as well as erosion of employee and supply chain trust. These sectors have the additional challenge of managing deliveries to and from facilities, with drivers passing through who need to interact with staff as they load and off-load goods.

So, any contact tracing solution cannot just encompass employees. Visitors and contractors need to be included too, and these are more difficult for organisations to monitor and manage.

And while governments look to tech giants to build digital contact tracing on national levels, their systems are targeted at the public and use by public health officials and designed to minimise concerns about privacy.

These are unlikely to be offered to private businesses, so organisations looking for the right fit solutions also need the time to carry out a Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) in line with best practice set out by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Only then they can be sure that, before implementing contact tracing technology, they have demonstrated a sufficiently high risk to individuals that necessitates processing personal data.

Backing this up, a CFO PwC survey showed nearly a third of all businesses are now evaluating contact tracing tech, which rises to over 40% for customer facing businesses.  Unsurprisingly PwC is offering its own solution.

And the security industry, including consultants to systems integrators, could well be missing a huge opportunity.

There’s already a mind-boggling variety of options for organisations to consider from mobile apps, sensors, and indoor positioning systems, to wearable devices and AI-powered analytics. And many of the technologies reaching the C-Suite are those offered by major services firms and global tech leaders, as well as a mishmash of tech start-ups that tend to target IT departments.

Yet the potential answer is something nearly all businesses already use – access control.

If consultants and systems integrators can work with security and FM managers to gain cross departmental consensus with HR and IT departments, it’s more likely that businesses cases will reach the C-Suite.

These budget holding executives are aware that their businesses are facing an unprecedented test of resilience and that, moving forward, they will want the ability to pivot quickly and navigate future problems to reduce recovery time.

And next gen access control and visitor management systems are well positioned to do just that.

In the immediate term they offer an effective method of contact tracing by leveraging transaction data, integrating with Active Directory.

They already give the ability to automate pre-screening of visitors, contractors, and delivery drivers, to issue frictionless and contactless QR codes, and to restrict access according to location and time, while recording movements and dwell times around facilities.

They also support instant area lockdowns, allowing emergency cleaning and decontamination whenever it becomes necessary.

Mobile apps can also support workforce management, enabling additional hygiene measures to be implemented for example, checking that maintenance staff have inspected and maintained HVAC for correct air quality and ensuring janitorial effectiveness for ongoing bacterial control.

Organizations also have the option to strengthen measures further by checking meeting rooms have been thoroughly sanitised after use. Or, in the event of a positive test, operators can trace precise movements using integrated surveillance tools. For those with the latest edge VA cameras, there’s the option of leveraging meta data filtering for faster searches across multiple streams based on door transaction data.

Moving forward, these next generation systems will also support the longer-term goals of helping organisations adapt to an increasingly dispersed and remote workforces. They help eliminate disparate systems and silos of information, and deliver the insights and decision-making power to help companies better orchestrate workspace changes better manage their staff and facilities.

Looking beyond the challenges of this winter, these are advantages that almost every business will need.