Many things about Matt Bruinooge’s senior year at Brown are different from his previous college life. One is that he logs on to a website from tech giant Alphabet twice a week to schedule nasal swabs.
Brown is one of the first customers of a pandemic safety service from Alphabet subsidiary Verily Life Sciences called Healthy at Work, or Healthy at School at colleges. It offers a website and software for surveying workers or students for symptoms, scheduling coronavirus tests, and managing the results.
The site Bruinooge uses to schedule his tests has similar styling to Google’s office suite. When a test comes back negative, he sees a graphic of something like a Covid-era hall pass, with a big check mark in soothing green. “The testing process is streamlined,” Bruinooge says—although he wonders where his data may end up.
Bruinooge is an early adopter, if not a volunteer, for a potential new market for large tech companies. Alphabet and its peers sent their workers home quickly as the pandemic surged, and many have said employees won’t return to the office until well into 2021. That hasn’t stopped them from launching services to sell to others that are willing, or required, to get people back into offices and classrooms.
The University of Alabama System is also using Verily’s new service. Swabs are processed by commercial labs, and, for a small number of customers, at Verily’s own recently accredited Covid-19 lab in San Francisco. Microsoft has its own bundle of Covid-era tools that can help with symptom screening and test scheduling, as well as mobile apps that can display a digital pass to control access to an office. Oracle and Salesforce have created their own pandemic services on top of existing products for managing staff or customer relationships.
All those Covid-safety services are marketed with caring statements about helping people stay safe. They also offer a new revenue source during tricky economic times—and a chance to nudge businesses to invest more deeply in digitizing their operations.
As the coronavirus spread in March, administrators at the University of Kentucky turned to their health faculty for advice on operating safely, and to their IT experts on what tech could contribute. Staff talked to reps and watched demos from vendors, including Google and Microsoft, but chose a new pandemic suite called Work.com from San Francisco–based Salesforce.
The school already used Salesforce’s flagship customer relationship tools for programs like email campaigns and other communications with prospective and newly enrolled students. The company’s pandemic tools provided a way to leverage its existing database of student information to help contain coronavirus.
Students and staff on campus now receive an email each morning asking them to fill out a survey about any symptoms they’re experiencing. A person with nothing to report can be done in seconds. Anyone who doesn’t fill out the survey gets a reminder by text message later in the day, and a phone call if they still don’t respond.
If a person does report symptoms, they get a phone call asking for more information and, if necessary, a recommendation to get a coronavirus test. The university can rely on its own lab, but Salesforce also has a partnership with CVS to provide tests. At Kentucky, test results from the university medical center are logged in Salesforce, and positive tests automatically open a case with a team of contact tracers, who use software the company developed after Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo asked Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff for help.
“As much as Marc Benioff is here to save the world, it’s a savvy business model.”
Kate Leggett, analyst, Forrester
Tyler Gayheart, the university’s director of digital engagement, says the program has worked so well it has convinced him the university should probably spend more money with Salesforce. “In the long term this is not a pandemic response app, it’s a system for engagement and health and well-being across the university,” he says. Tactics being used to survey and monitor staff and students for coronavirus today could be adapted for other uses tomorrow, such as helping students with anxiety or other health issues, he says.
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.