Sumser: Predicting the next closure—is it possible?

Let’s imagine that you are on your way to reopening your offices.

You’ve arranged a robot to clean bathrooms. There’s yellow tape across the doors to the conference rooms. All employees will be wearing proximity sensors that beep when they get too close to a co-worker. There’s a heat-sensing camera at the door. You’re looking into occupancy sensors for the bathrooms.

You have a database of employee health attestations. Your policy on what it means to be healthy enough to come back is widely distributed. You have dashboards that tell you everything from attendance rates to COVID-19 case numbers. You know your case and fatality figures like you used to know the quarterly numbers. You are ready to kick contact tracing into gear.

Related: What’s most important in contact tracing?

The offices have been rearranged for social distancing. That means that only 36% of your employees can be in the office at the same time. You’ve closed the cafeteria, the snack room and the coffee station. It looks like you run a hand sanitizer farm in your spare time.

You’ve updated your paid sick leave and bereavement policies. You’ve examined and reexamined your travel policy. You are beginning to monitor the behavior of the human network.


You’ve invested in plenty of personal protective equipment in case something happens. You have methods for handling biohazard material. You’ve trained the people who will be cleaning things all of the time. You’ve resisted the health and safety theater of taking people’s temperatures.

You’ve installed a reservation system so that you know who’s turn it is to use the bathroom, who gets a desk today and who gets to use the elevator. You’re talking to the workman’s comp people because your rates will skyrocket next year.

You know that sustained exposure to trauma is causing outbreaks of mental health struggles in your workforce. You wonder if the COVID-related disabilities (brain, lung, kidney, liver, veins) are going to cost you in productivity. You’ve created learning pods for employees living close together to share expenses for childcare and tutors.

See also: How a ‘menu of options’ can ease the childcare burden

You are tracking all of the variables you can imagine.

And still, you won’t be able to gracefully predict the coming of the next office closure.

Why is this important? It’s way, way more expensive to shut down the office on short notice that it is to have some advance warning. While you may have established the actual criteria for the next work suspension, it’s not in any form that makes forecasting easy.

What you want is a system that keeps you on track by noticing the system-level behavior that leads to the workplace becoming riskier. While workman’s comp is likely to be the primary remedy for employee COVID claims, you know you’re not off the hook for exposing your workers to danger.

The safety and health of your organization are complex dynamic systems problems involving the relationships between all of the variables you are tracking. While a number of software providers (Workday and ServiceNow) offer tools to monitor the variables, the behavior of your workforce system is not the accumulated average of those bits of data. Instead, the workforce is a network of relationships between the people and between the variables.

What you’d like is a tool that says something like “Case numbers are rising. Reduce the number of people allowed in the office by 8%.” Or maybe, “Absentee rates are up by 6%. Is there a mental health problem you haven’t understood?”


Over time, we will start to understand the cascade of events that lead to case acceleration. In the meantime, we will need to tread the fine line between acceptable corporate risk and acceptable workforce risk. They may not always be perfectly aligned.

After a while, intelligent tools will apply to a range of health-oriented forecasts in the organization. We’ll start to see that the health of the organization is different but related to the health of individual employees.

These days, I am actively advocating for the establishment of ethics functions in both vendors and their customers. Figuring out what the right thing to do in a given situation is the heart of an ethics committee’s work.

The coming months will blur the distinction between HR operations, building safety and AI-style forecasts. Keeping the decisions focused on the right thing to do and minimizing unanticipated consequences is the objective of these groups.

We are in completely new terrain. That means that almost all decisions are being made for the first time under these circumstances. That, in turn, means that they should be made more carefully with a deeper look into the possibility that something could go wrong.

Hear more about these topics in my Oct. 29 keynote at this year’s HR Technology Conference.

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