More and more Houston companies are having employees return to the office, but business leaders should take advantage of new tools and best practices. Getty Images

As states begin to relax their stay-at-home orders and communities plan for the reopening of local economies, many may be returning to work and engaging in more regular social activity. While the return to some semblance of normalcy may come as a relief, questions about one's own health or the health of family members may remain.

Upon returning to work, people should continue to be smart and cautious while interacting with others. Following CDC guidelines and maintaining social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and frequently sanitizing common areas or high-contact items, including doorknobs, hand railings and communal phones and printers, can be good preventive measures to help mitigate COVID-19 health risks.

Business associations, health systems, and governments are crafting guidelines to help mitigate risks associated with reopening communities, but additional resources may be available to help individuals navigate their own physical and mental health during this transition period.

Many may continue to have questions related to potential COVID-19 symptoms. To help, UnitedHealthcare provides an online COVID-19 symptom self-checker to help people gauge their symptoms and consider what may be the next steps for care. The symptom self-checker is at no additional cost for people to access, and users of the self-checker tool will be asked to answer a series of questions to generate feedback on care options to consider, which then assigns assessment levels ranging from self-isolation to emergency care, depending on the severity and urgency of the symptoms recorded. A testing site locator feature provides updated information on nearby COVID-19 testing sites if recommended by a physician.

Some people may still need to see a doctor but may worry about the potential risk of exposure (or the risk of exposing others) with in-person visits to a physician's office or urgent care center. As an alternative starting point for care, some people may continue to consider telehealth, which enables people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. Telehealth may be especially helpful as an initial option for medical advice related to COVID-19, and to help evaluate other possible health issues, such as allergies, pink eye or the flu.

Employers also have a tool available for their employees. ProtectWell, a new smartphone app just launched by Microsoft and UnitedHealth Group, screens employees for COVID-19. Employees found to be at-risk for COVID-19 are directed to get a test and the app notifies employers of the results. The ProtectWell app is offered to all employers in the United States at no charge.

Access to mental health resources may also continue to be an important tool for people to have as they head back to work. Being at home and perhaps feeling isolated over the last few months may have had an impact on one's mental health, and the loneliness people may be experiencing, as well as possible stress or anxiety brought on by the pandemic, should be considered alongside physical health.

Virtual mental health resources are available for those experiencing increased stress and anxiety. A free emotional support line (866-342-6892) is available 24/7 to the public courtesy of Optum, which is part of UnitedHealth Group. Staffed by mental health professionals, individuals may receive help without taking any unnecessary trips.

Available at no additional cost, mental health and wellness apps, like Sanvello, may also be great resources for coping with the ongoing stress and anxiety. Equipped with self-care tools, peer support groups, coaching and therapy, Sanvello offers a number of avenues to receive the help and support one may need as they return to work.

For people who used mental health services before COVID-19, some care providers offer long-distance counseling and other resources, enabling for continued care from the comfort of home. Check with your providers regarding options on what may work best for you.

Taking care of physical and mental health needs may be imperative in the coming weeks and months as communities strive to reopen and individuals resume more familiar living routines. Using online and telehealth services may play a role in facilitating a smoother and healthier transition.

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Dr. Sarah-Anne Schumann is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of Oklahoma and North Texas.

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H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

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A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

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Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.