SquareFoot is a New York-based commercial property tech startup. When the virus first hit, the firm was faced with an issue – they had 60 employees to a space that could only hold 27 under the guidelines enforced by the state and the US Centre for Disease Control. Hot-desking and squeezing many onto a single table was just not a viable possibility anymore. SquareFoot was certainly not alone, with many firms taken the step already to extend work-from-home policies into at least mid-2021. Some have even cut rent to their office spaces altogether, becoming totally remote.
SquareFoot’s work typically revolves around building digital tools which they hope will help clients to find office spaces in crowded cities, like New York. Now, the firm has diverted into generating an algorithm that can allocate office space to a particular number of employees, safely.
Research was conducted in-house amongst their 60 employees. SquareFoot then used this data to help to construct an AI tool to determine office scheduling. This essentially means that employees can submit a request to work in the office to an online system 24 hours in advance. The system allocates office times to each employee fairly, and takes into account factors like their job function or how much time they may have already spent in the office space that week.
What makes this AI tool unique is that it is reactive. It allows for requests as opposed to calling employees into work against their own wishes regarding their safety.
This idea has however come under fire. Its critics argue that letting employees decide what is best is unlikely to be a viable and successful long-term solution. For instance, it could be argued that in-person office interactions could allow for the possibility of greater promotion of job advancements, which could disadvantage particular groups. This groups could include those deemed ‘high-risk’, as well as working mothers who have been disproportionately affected by home schooling measures.
At this point, SquareFoot’s AI algorithm tool simply remains as a work in progress. More market research is yet to be conducted, especially with groups that this tool could potentially work to disadvantage. What remains a positive for the startup is that at this point, people crave certainty. A system which allows employees to book into a safe and socially distanced workplace can work to reduce stress levels.
It is almost entirely true to say that no software or AI planning tool can prevent the perils of COVID-19. It can however, certainly be enforced to slow down the spread in office spaces which have been affected, like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs back in September. The tool has a long way to go, but seems to be a step towards a safer direction for employees.