Big Tech Companies Want to Help Get You Back in the Office

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Kate Leggett, an analyst at Forrester, believes that pattern of pandemic software leading to other business is part of the plan. “As much as Marc Benioff is here to save the world, it’s a savvy business model,” she says. Rivals such as Oracle and Microsoft appear to be using a similar strategy.

That could make more digitization of everyday life a legacy of the pandemic. Real estate firm CBRE, a customer of Microsoft’s pandemic services, is preparing for that.

CBRE clients trying to reopen their offices are encouraged to consult dashboards Microsoft created to monitor local trends in coronavirus infections. A CBRE app for workers called Host, built on Microsoft’s cloud, has been upgraded with new Covid-19-era features. People can use the app to signal to bosses whether they plan to go to the office, take a symptom survey, and if they pass receive a virtual entrance card that integrates with electronic doors. Mobile Covid-19 passes, sometimes linked to testing programs, have been a major part of China’s coronavirus response.

Alex Andel, who leads CBRE’s digital workplace services, says even when the current crisis (finally) ends, going to the office will be a more digital experience. The pandemic “will accelerate use of these tools,” he says. “We’ve gone 10 years into the future.”

Health care is notoriously analog, but the pandemic has provided Alphabet’s Verily a chance to show how that can change quickly if institutions are willing to experiment. The company is one of Alphabet’s collection of “other bets,” such as self-driving car company Waymo, that collectively lost $4.8 billion last year.

Verily’s Healthy at Work service for Covid-19 is the latest addition to Verily’s dizzying list of ventures that includes selling a $195 spoon that compensates for hand tremor, working with Johnson & Johnson on surgical robots, and a recent announcement that it would sell health insurance to employers.

The company jumped into Covid-19 services early, partnering with California’s Department of Public Health in mid-March on an online system that asks a person about coronavirus symptoms and allows them to schedule a test at their nearest site. The system is now active in 15 states.

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Vivian Lee, president of health platforms at Verily, said the company built Healthy at Work by drawing on that experience and ideas used for diabetes management in partnership with pharma giant Sanofi, although the drug company said last year it was pulling back on the project.

One of the largest Healthy at Work rollouts is in Alabama. A collaboration between the state government and University of Alabama Birmingham called GuideSafe tapped Verily to attempt to test every student attending a public or private college in the state before they returned to campus for the new school year.

Bob Phillips, executive director of GuideSafe, says the way Verily made it possible for students to submit information, schedule a test, and check in at a testing site for their nasal swab using only their phone, without touching a piece of paper, was impressive. “It’s very consumer focused,” he says.

Despite the marketing, a major Covid-19 outbreak at the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa shows the difficulty of selling services said to help contain the disease. Phillips says Verily also helps power an ongoing program of so-called sentinel testing that tests people at random to monitor the spread of the disease.

When asked if Verily would expand Healthy at Work to cover more than Covid-19, Lee said only that the company planned to offer the program “for as long as customers find it valuable for mitigating the spread of the virus.” Minimal progress on containing the novel coronavirus and the daunting logistics of mass vaccination suggest that Verily’s service could be in demand for a while yet. Parent company Alphabet, which draws more than 80 percent of revenue from data-driven ads, brings suspicion that Verily may also make money in other ways.


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