The Algorithm That Could Get You Back in the Office

In January, Nick Eurek was ready to reveal the product he’d spent three years developing. He’s the co-founder ofMaptician, a small, Georgia-based firm that started 2020 prepared to sell its new analytical tool that maps the floor plan of an office and, on a mobile app, shows employees in real-time where people are sitting. The idea was that this could help workers maximize their time with colleagues. 

That plan changed dramatically when the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring.

“Our big push was how to get more people to spend more face-to-face time with each other, in order to get to know their co-workers,” Eurek says. “Now you’re talking about things that have a bit more gravity.”

The updated version of Maptician’s software still tracks employee scheduling and analyzes floor plans — but it’s being used to help workers avoid each other.

Despite the eagerness of workers and employers alike to resume their pre-pandemic schedules, for millions of Americans the return to the office has been delayed indefinitely by a resurgent virus. In big cities like New York and San Francisco, offices are still running at less than 50% of their pre-pandemic capacity. 

So how open is too open? Well, there’s an algorithm for that: Several companies now use software designed to help them shuffle employees, schedule meetings, map office hot spots and maintain safe distance among colleagues keen to ditch the home for the high-rise.

There’s a healthy market for this feature. Eurek says that more than 80% of their revenue this year is being driven by companies looking for ways to juggle staffing so they can reopen safely. Fifty businesses are currently using the Maptician platform, which allows employers to keep their in-person staff as socially distant as possible and detects areas of high transmission risk, like desks spaced too closely, narrow walkways and enclosed conference rooms. The office maps are also time-sensitive, which means companies can use them as a form of contact tracing: If someone in the office reports a positive Covid-19 test, co-workers can go into the map and see if they were ever seated nearby. 

Other companies have built their own tools to guide their reopening process.

Before the pandemic, SquareFoot, a commercial real-estate brokerage in midtown Manhattan, had more than 50 employees coming to work daily. Conference rooms were packed, the lunch area was bustling, and employees worked side by side in an 8,000-square-foot open office. Now desks are at least six feet apart, employees wear masks, and a modified lunch room contains additional workstations separated by plexiglass. Under social-distancing rules, SquareFoot determined that it can only reasonably bring in 27 of its 59 employees at one time. So before it reopened its office on July 13, company employees developed an algorithm to figure out what the work rotation ought to look like.

“We’re not insisting that anybody come into the office from now until the beginning of the new year, but we’ve created a calculator that tells us how many people can be in the office,” says SquareFoot president Michael Colacino. 

The algorithm it’s using includes a differential matrix, which automatically keeps track of the hours different company teams spend in-office and then awards future time depending on who’s already gotten their office time.

“What happens is you get your allocation, and once you’ve used it, there’s a penalty function that downgrades your importance and upgrades other people’s importance,” Colacino says. “That made people feel good, because it didn’t make things seem lopsided.”

Brokers, who make up about a third of the company, currently get the majority of those slots: They’re the ones who shuffle in and out, between meeting with clients during tours of commercial spaces in the city that are available for rent. 

At its core, Colacino says the algorithm is just an easier way for SquareFoot to keep the business running while providing a level of assurance that safety is what’s driving any workplace reopening. So far, however, the tool has not had to sort through a large number of returnees. As of October, the greatest number of people in the office at the same time has been 12.

Ensuring safety is a fraught process at the moment, with rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in many parts of the world and grim predictions for the future as the U.S. enters the fall (and flu) season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its definition of “close contact” with respect to coronavirus: It’s now defined as being within six feet of an infectious person for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. 

In other words, even multiple brief exposures to a person with Covid-19 can transmit the virus — bad news given what is now known about aerosol and indoor transmission. The risks of office exposure were illustrated in the early days of the virus, when it was found that 94 people working in a South Korean call center who tested positive for Covid-19 worked on the same floor. 

In the U.S., much of the early attention around workplace outbreaks focused on inadequate safety measures at meat-processing plants. But the perils lurking in white-collar offices have since become more clear, and several employers that insisted on bringing workers back have run into problems.JPMorgan andGoldman Sachs, for example, both sent some traders home in September after multiple positive tests. And in October, the West Wing hosted the nation’s most famous office outbreak when multiple White House staffers, including the president, came down with the disease. 

It’s possible no employee-management software could have entirely prevented these infections. Full CDC guidelines on indoor office buildings include a host of additional recommendations on ventilation, daily health checks, cleaning, mask compliance and other factors. But several employers have found that technology can help them follow safe reopening protocols. 

Salesforce, the Fortune 500 company that builds cloud-based software for businesses to manage customer relationships from a single portal, has been using technology to reopen offices since it debuted in June. The new software platform comes with a suite of wellness tools. “One aspect of assessing employees’ interest in coming back to work is their feeling confident about coming back. Software lends itself to that,” says Eric Jacobson, vice-president of product at Salesforce Field Service, the company’s software arm for dispatchers and field technicians. “If you know the considerations around social distancing and capacity management, you feel that if you come back, you are safe.”

One of those tools is a shift-management algorithm that calculates potential bottlenecks within a building, like the entrance lobby and the elevators, based on the number of projected workers. The math involved is similar to that used to determine how airplanes are boarded. “What we retain is the ability to delay their start,” Jacobson says. “It’s arrival staggering: We ensure there’s not a surge of 100 people showing up at 8 a.m.”

While Salesforce sells the platform to other corporations, it’s also using it in-house to get some of its 29,000 global employees back inside. More than 25 of its offices across Asia, Europe and Canada have reopened (although its vaunted 61-storySalesforce Tower in San Francisco remains closed).

Salesforce isn’t the only marquee name in U.S. business that has seen its glitzy headquarters transformed into a silent monument of the Covid Era. While some companies have welcomed staffers back, office work looks to be a long way off for others: Microsoft, Target, Uber, Slack and Ford Motor Company are just some of the big names extending work-from-home directives until July 2021. And many others appear to be in no hurry to bring staffers back. “I’ve talked to more than 100 companies, and I don’t think a single one of them has asked, ‘How do we maximize the number of people we can get into the office as quickly as possible?’” says Maptician’s Eurek.

That caution has helped usher in a host of predictions about apermanent rise in remote work, especially in high-tech industries, and the demise of the open-plan workplace. Still, plenty of companies seem to be betting that the physical office can survive the pandemic. In New York City, for example, the tech giants Amazon, Apple and Facebook snapped up 1.6 million square feet of office space this year. 

In a way, devising algorithms for safer reopening could represent the tech world’s attempt at ensuring  that those kinds of investments pay off — eventually. 

“I think we all expected we would be back in our offices by the summer or early fall,” Jacobson says. “When they do open, it’s not just going to be let’s pretend we’re back in February as though nothing ever happened.” Instead, he sees a slower climb back to normalcy. “It’s going to be a ramp — and that’s where technology is going to enable companies, and more importantly enable their employees, to feel safe.” 

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