Building Resilience in the COVID Crisis: A Conversation with Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA

March 1, 2021 By Jennie Bragg

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit last year, Siemens had to adjust its business to protect employees and keep operations up and running—while also thinking outside the box for ways to apply its technology and expertise to the global response to COVID-19.

Barbara Humpton, President & CEO, Siemens USA

We recently asked Barbara Humpton, President and CEO of Siemens USA, how the company is responding to COVID-19 at home and abroad, and how technology and innovation are helping to build resilience in a crisis and put the world on the path to recovery.

Humpton oversees the U.S. operations of the global technology company and drives the company’s mission to transform the everyday, supporting the vital industries and critical infrastructure forming the backbone of America’s economy. The company is focused on making a positive impact, empowering people worldwide, and harnessing digital transformation for social good—an undertaking that has earned Siemens a top spot in its category on Fortune’s World’s Most Admired list for six years in a row.

Siemens has played an essential role in responding to the virus and now in forging a path to recovery. How has the company adapted its technologies to support businesses, governments, and communities?

We moved quickly to support frontline response, particularly when it came to testing and treatment. In New York, we helped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stand up a 110-bed temporary hospital facility in just three weeks. We’ve also worked with Auto-Info, a Thailand-based company in the Life Science industry, to develop mobile COVID-19 testing labs featuring our air quality solutions to prevent further infection.

Another priority for us was keeping vital industries such as manufacturing up and running. Governments and health experts recommended physical distancing to reduce risk. We wanted to find a way using technology to help workers meet these guidelines. Then, say we did have a worker test positive for the virus, we also wanted to be able to perform very effective contact tracing – as we knew how difficult it would be for a worker to retrace their daily movements through a plant.

What we did was adapt our Real-Time Locating Systems (RTLS) that are used for tracking assets throughout the manufacturing environment. We created a wearable solution connected to software that tracks human interactions in the workplace. A worker’s ID badge will set off an alert anytime they get within six feet of another colleague. The system will also support real-time contact tracing. This gives the whole team a lot more confidence in both the safety of the working environment and in returning to the site if there’s an incident, and that confidence really matters.

As vaccines bring us new hope in defeating the pandemic, how is Siemens part of the effort to reopen communities? What steps forward can we take right away?

We now know that COVID-19 spreads much more easily indoors than outdoors. As this became apparent to experts, our smart infrastructure team engaged with the science and began rethinking how we could apply building technologies to create safer, healthier indoor spaces. We’re now in the process with vaccines of making our immune systems stronger than the virus. Well, what if we could also take a similar approach to our buildings? What if our buildings, instead of being associated with higher risk, could be transformed into a front line of defense – not just against COVID-19, but all types of pathogens?

We’re doing this now. And we’re beginning by applying this approach in some really essential spaces – particularly in schools. It’s so important that we focus on not leaving anyone behind in these challenging times; it’s been so difficult, and in some cases impossible, for many students to carry on their education virtually. We’ve been able to deploy building technologies that are truly a game-changer into classrooms and buildings to bring students back together for a real, interactive, in-person, educational experience.

Let’s also focus on the longer-term benefits of these air quality improvements. The United States Government Accountability Office determined that approximately 36,000 schools nationwide need to update heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems – and recent stimulus packages provided funding for education to address these needs. This is an opportunity both to reopen schools and to bring our education infrastructure into the future.

Tell us how this technology works.

Siemens has developed a comprehensive set of solutions as part of what we call our Comeback with Confidence portfolio. This is everything from thermal imaging cameras that take body temperature checks at entrances, to smart building apps that enable physical distancing and monitor occupancy, to a comprehensive air quality program that neutralizes COVID-19 and all types of pathogens. This includes an air purification solution that is easily installed into existing HVAC systems. And I’ll add that these improvements permanently improve the health and safety of these spaces, as pollutants are anywhere from two to five times more present inside buildings than in the outdoors.  This a moment of transformation, and the steps we can take now responding to crisis will make us more resilient. In fact, another benefit of the technology being deployed is energy-efficiency improvements that support sustainability efforts and even reduce operating costs.

With everything we’ve been through, how can workers enter these spaces and trust they’re in a safe environment?

After a decade in which we’d seen digital technology change our consumer lives, we knew this decade was the moment for infrastructure. Now, we didn’t expect that five-year technology plans would be rolled out in a matter of months in responding to the pandemic, yet this is exactly what has happened in many cases. Workers should be able to place their trust in knowing that the technology exists – and it’s being deployed – to ensure buildings will be safer and healthier when they return to them.

With our air purification solutions, we perform testing to verify that the technology is neutralizing pathogens. Or think about how the technology solution we have for manufacturing removes so much of the guesswork. Workers can trust they are physical distancing. If they do happen to come into close contact with someone else who ends up testing positive for the virus, they know right away and can take the proper precautions.

And what about workers who have been able to work effectively remotely? Are you focused on solutions for bringing them back to the office?

I spoke to Scott Rechler, who leads a commercial real estate firm in New York City, for our podcast, and I liked the way he put it: Scott described returning to the office as a civic responsibility. Every office job supports additional service jobs. And, at Siemens, even as we commit to a future with more remote work, we’re also innovating to reclaim in-person collaboration. As part of our Comeback with Confidence work I mentioned, we’ve forged a global partnership with Salesforce focused on returning to offices. Our solutions enable employees to reserve conference rooms and desks through our Comfy app, which sends real-time alerts as occupancy thresholds are reached. One example of our work in this space is in Singapore. Our Comfy and Enlighted smart-building apps are being used in one of our offices there to ensure the safe return of 650 employees. You’re giving employees the tools they need to feel confident returning to the office, while also supporting a new office model with more people working remotely.

This is something to be optimistic – even excited – about: the idea that we aren’t returning to the same offices and buildings, but spaces that have been transformed for the future. And that’s really what drives us at Siemens as we apply technology to transform the everyday, for everyone.