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Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Siemens (SIEGY) has raced to give its workplace app Comfy a makeover for the coronavirus era.

Want to reserve an open desk as offices are rearranged for social distancing? Check. Need to locate your coworkers? Check. Looking to book a conference room that’s big enough for two people to stay six feet apart? That’s taken care of, too.

Siemens, which employs 385,000 people, plans to roll out a basic version of the product to 100,000 of its workers across 30 countries by October. It’s a sign of how quickly companies are deploying new technology and encouraging data sharing as they bring employees back to the office.

“Comfy is used hopefully like WhatsApp,” said Rainer Haueis, head of digital enterprise business at Siemens’ smart infrastructure unit.

Apps to fight ‘fear’

Even before Covid-19, companies were preparing to make workplaces “smarter” for the internet-everywhere age, integrating functions like room temperature control and repair requests into new apps for employee use. Siemens bought California-based Comfy in 2018, part of its effort to create “personalized and responsive buildings.”

Yet the technology could quickly become mainstream as employers grapple with how to encourage often wary staff to return safely to their offices during the pandemic.

“It’s just taken on a new, heightened sense of importance,” said Eddy Wagoner, digital chief information officer at JLL Technologies, a business division of Jones Lang LaSalle. The real estate consultancy has its own app for clients. “People are embracing it more, or in fact demanding it, because of the uncertainty [and] that fear of coming back.”

Haueis said Siemens has held conversations with most firms listed on Germany’s DAX 30, the country’s elite stock index, about making its app available to them.

Comfy predates coronavirus and the workplace challenges it has thrown up, but some quick changes have allowed it to meet the moment.

The app can be used to check in for work, so managers can monitor how many employees are present at their offices. Workers are prompted to report their plans and the floor they intend to work from before heading in.

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Comfy can also be used to call the elevator and request a floor, so employees can move throughout the building without touching buttons. Coworkers can locate each other within the office using data from sensors made by another Siemens company, Enlighted.

Enlighted launched a contact tracing app called “Safe” in July that relies on sensors in ID badges to determine who may have been exposed if an employee tests positive for Covid-19.

This product is available to clients, but there are no plans to launch it within Siemens offices at this time, according to a company spokesperson.

However, such offerings are poised to become more integrated in the months to come. Siemens is working with Salesforce (CRM) to combine the capabilities of both Comfy and Enlighted with Work.com, a platform for businesses to manage and monitor reopening efforts.

Brave new world?

The rise of return-to-work apps managed by employers has raised some concerns among privacy advocates, who warn that their use could rapidly expand and systematize methods of surveillance, and turn the disclosure of more information to employers into an accepted practice.

“If you’re going to roll out one of these apps, start out with a policy of how are these apps going to collect data, how are you going to use it,” said Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of human resources for Engage PEO, a professional services firm. “[Employees] need to know what they’re consenting to.”

Comfy is not mandatory for Siemens employees, and the company said that all of its location-tracing functions will be optional. Third-party customers are encouraged to adopt a similar policy. The option to locate coworkers only works inside corporate offices since it relies on sensors.

Haueis said data is stored locally, and regular audits will be conducted by accredited outsiders. Comfy’s new functions were also discussed with Germany’s powerful works councils, which advocate on behalf of workers, he added.

Employees can book desks in advance through the Comfy app, helping the employer monitor and enforce social distancing.

“Everything is on a voluntary basis,” Haueis said. “That’s the basis of the whole system.”

Despite some anxiety about the broader ramifications, companies are moving quickly to adopt these workplace apps, some with tracing features. And Comfy isn’t the only option on the market.

PwC launched its own contact tracing app last month. Rob Mesirow, who runs the consulting group’s connected solutions practice, said that the firm has already signed 40 contracts, and has deals with 800 companies and universities in the pipeline.

“We have not seen any industry not impacted by this,” Mesirow said. “We’re trying to get people on board as quickly as we possibly can.”

PwC’s app uses signals emitted from mobile phones to locate other coworkers nearby. A trace can be performed in just 30 seconds, and will apply a “proximity score” to individuals to help assess their risk, Mesirow said.

The app can only trace workers in the office, and won’t directly notify anyone who may have been exposed to an infected person, he added. Only an authorized person at the company, usually in the human resources department, will have access to the data.

PwC plans to make the app mandatory for its 55,000 US workers when they return to the office, though the schedule for getting employees back is still being finalized.

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Joe Biden: Covid vaccination in US will not be mandatory

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Mr Biden, and state governors who would be on the front lines of any such mandate, might prefer to target only certain segments of the population more at risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19. For instance, employers could be encouraged to require healthcare and nursing home workers to be immunised, and most children already must have up-to-date shot records before attending public or private schools.

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India’s Ranjitsinh Disale wins 2020 Global Teacher Prize and splits it with runners-up

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The award, which is run by the Varkey Foundation in partnership with UNESCO, celebrates “exceptional” teachers who have made an outstanding contribution to their profession.

Ranjitsinh Disale, a teacher at Zilla Parishad Primary School, in the village of Paritewadi in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, was chosen as winner from more than 12,000 nominations and applications, from over 140 countries around the world.

The award recognized his efforts to promote girls’ education at the school, whose pupils are mostly from tribal communities.

The Global Teacher Prize said he learned the local language of the village in order to translate class textbooks into his pupils’ mother tongue.

He also created unique QR codes on the textbooks to give students access to audio poems, video lectures, stories and assignments, greatly improving school attendance. His QR technology is now being rolled out more widely across India.

The British actor and TV host Stephen Fry announced Disale as the winner at a virtual ceremony broadcast from the Natural History Museum in London on Thursday.

Rather than keeping all his winnings, Disale told Fry in an interview that he would share the prize with the other nine finalists, giving them $55,000 each — the first time anyone has done so in the award’s six-year history.

He told Fry: “I believe that if I share this prize money with nine teachers it means I can scale up their work. Their incredible work is still worthy… If I share the prize money with the rest of the teachers they will get a chance to continue their work… and we can reach out and lighten the lives of as many students as we can.”

His actions drew praise from around the world, including from the Dalai Lama, who said on Twitter and in a statement published online that he admired Disale for sharing the money.

“Educating young children, especially from poor and needy backgrounds is perhaps the best way to help them as individuals, and actively contributes to creating a better world,” he said.

The award’s nine runners-up are teachers working in the United States, Britain, Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa, Italy, South Korea, Malaysia and Brazil.



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Pelosi eyes combining Covid aid with mammoth spending deal

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Pelosi said the $908 billion proposal released this week by a centrist group of Senate and House members helped restart the stimulus talks, which fell apart just before the election after months of dragging on with little real movement.

“There is momentum — there is momentum with the action that the senators and House members in a bipartisan way have taken,” Pelosi said Friday, in the latest sign that negotiators are closing in on a deal. “The tone of our conversations is one that is indicative of the decision to get the job done.”

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday said he’s “encouraged” by the $908 billion proposal, framing it as the type of bipartisan work that he hopes to foster as president. He cautioned that “any package passed in the lame duck session is not going to be enough overall.”

But hurdles remain. Government funding runs out in just one week, and there are still a sizable number of issues impeding an agreement on a massive spending package that would increase agency budgets for the rest of the fiscal year.

The sheer number of outstanding items at such a late stage makes it increasingly likely that congressional negotiators will require a brief stopgap spending bill to complete their work before leaving for the holidays. Such a decision could be made early next week if lawmakers fail to make significant progress over the weekend.

Pelosi demurred when asked about the possibility of a short-term stopgap to buy more time for talks, and dismissed the need for a longer term continuing resolution that would extend current government funding into early next year.

“We will take the time that we need,” Pelosi said, while acknowledging that a number of issues remain, including some outside of appropriators’ jurisdiction.

“Don’t worry about a date,” she added.

While appropriators in both chambers remain optimistic that they’ll finish their work before the holidays, Republicans and Democrats are still swapping offers and arguing over details, kicking some of the most difficult items up to congressional leaders.

For example, a House Democratic aide close to the talks said Republicans want to scrub any mentions of Covid-19 from the omnibus package entirely. Earlier this year, House Democrats added coronavirus relief to their slate of fiscal 2021 appropriations bills, while Senate Republicans have insisted that pandemic aid remain totally separate from annual appropriations measures.

Republicans are also objecting to funding for research on reducing racial and ethnic inequalities in the justice system, in addition to language that would require the Capitol Police to report on policies and procedures on eliminating unconscious bias and racial profiling during training, the Democratic aide said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are accusing Democrats of holding up omnibus talks by insisting on the removal of two Interior-Environment policy riders that have been included in annual spending bills for years. The provisions involve protections for the greater sage-grouse, in addition to a provision related to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass.

“Dredging these up right now is beyond counterproductive,” a GOP aide familiar with the talks said Thursday night.

Funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall also remains a perennial sticking point — Senate Republicans have proposed $2 billion for fiscal 2021, which began on Oct. 1. House Democrats have proposed no extra cash.

Lawmakers have also disagreed on detention beds for detained migrants in recent days, although Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — the top Senate Democrat who oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security — said Thursday that issue may get solved without the help of leadership.

Also in question is whether the White House will ultimately support a package that classifies billions of dollars in veterans’ health care spending as “emergency” spending outside of strict budget limits. Both House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby are moving forward with their negotiations assuming that’s the case, since the White House has previously signed off on such an arrangement.

Pelosi on Friday also said that whatever coronavirus relief they include in the government funding bill will not be the last time Congress addresses the ongoing pandemic, which continues to devastate the U.S., killing more than 275,000 Americans and causing a sharp downturn in the economy. The U.S. saw the deadliest day ever on Thursday, with Covid-19 fatalities exceeding 2,700.

“President-elect Biden has said that this package would be, just at best, just a start. And that’s how we see it as well,” Pelosi said.

The speaker also defended her decision to hold out for months, demanding a larger deal in the ballpark of $2 trillion or more, only to agree to negotiate this smaller package now. McConnell, similarly, refused to come off his much smaller baseline over the summer — pushing a $500 billion package — resulting in a standoff between congressional leaders.

“That was not a mistake, it was a decision,” Pelosi told reporters, saying the dynamics have significantly shifted since the election of Biden and the quicker than expected vaccine development. “That is a total game changer — a new president and a vaccine.”

With cautious optimism about the prospect of passing some fiscal stimulus to buoy the American economy during a bleak pandemic winter, lawmakers remain hopeful that Congress will pull it together before leaving Washington, despite lingering omnibus headaches.

“You know this place — turns on a dime,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who was elected by the Democratic caucus on Thursday as the next Appropriations chair.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this story.

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