When it’s time to return to the office, tech is key to success

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out but remain months away for most office workers, companies want to know how to safely reopen offices and what the post-pandemic workplace will look like.

Co-workers use protective face masks and glass partitions in a post-COVID workspace.
Mixetto / Getty Images

Ten months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, triggering a worldwide shift to a work-from-home model, employers across the globe are trying to plan when and how to safely bring employees back into physical office spaces. With employee anxiety, social distancing regulations, and technology investments to consider, reopening offices could prove to be even more complex than shutting them down.

Some organizations decided months ago to tackle the issue head-on. Goldman Sachs’ London office, for instance, initially reopened on June 15, despite UK guidelines at the time urging people to work from home where possible. Most have taken a more cautious approach, however, repeatedly pushing back the date when they expect employees back in the office. 

The COVID-19 vaccines now rolling out offer great hope for reopening this year, but it could well be six months or more before they’re available to most office workers. Even then, employers will have to continue using workplace health and safety measures developed during the pandemic to ensure that their employees feel safe and comfortable once they’re back.

Whether employers wait until all their workers are vaccinated or begin a staggered return-to-office strategy sooner, the time to make plans is now. And companies need to recognize that how employees think about the office has forever changed.

“[Employers] can't think that the employees coming back to the office are the same workers that left them back in March,” said Andrew Gross, director of sales and operations, UC enterprise at Crestron Electronics. “This is a different breed of employee; they have a different knowledge set and they have a different set of expectations.”

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Turning to technology

In the same way that investment in collaborative working tools helped to smooth the transition to working from home, technology will play an important role in enabling the safe reopening of offices.

The workplace of the future will likely be unrecognizable to the one people left back in March 2020, as businesses grapple with a number of key challenges: social distancing measures, protecting employee health, and minimizing the anxiety that returning to work might cause.

Some of these challenges can be dealt with in a practical way. For example, small meeting rooms that don’t allow employees to be socially distant will be closed off. Other challenges are much more complex, and this is where organizations are looking to technology for help.

“As leaders, we need completely new data and completely new tools to ensure we’re taking into account the health and safety of our employees and our customers as we reopen our businesses,” said Salesforce president and COO Bret Taylor at the company’s EMEA event last August.

The software giant has developed Work.com, a platform that allows both employers and employees to better navigate the complexities of returning to the office. Via a phone app, workers can input their health data into customizable health and wellness surveys, letting their employer know they believe it is safe for them to come into the office. They can then select their preferred time to be in the office, and the apps shift management tool will provide a schedule that optimizes office density and spatial distance through staggered start times and breaks.

Organizations also have access to a dashboard that brings together data from different locations as well as keeping track of local COVID-19 guidelines and employees’ health.

Salesforce is not the only company that has pivoted its technology to solve the problem of returning to work. Among others, MEGA International launched HOPEX Trust, an app that helps organizations safely plan and manage a workplace return; PwC developed Check-In, a workplace planning and contact tracing app; and GlobalReach Technology launched Crowd Insights, which uses data from devices and other wearables to monitor, predict, and notify organizations with real-time alerts when social distancing measures have been breached or there’s a risk of overcrowding.

James McQuivey, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, said that while these and other tools will have an important role to play in newly reopened offices, they need to be deployed in combination with new workplace policies.

Many companies, for example, are planning to reduce the number of available desks. If your organization doesn’t have a clear policy in place for safe-office procedures such as scheduling a desk, it won’t matter how effective the tools you deploy are; people won’t be able to find a desk “because management wasn’t effective at guiding people towards which days to work,” McQuivey said.

“There will still have to be social distancing rules and policies around how to share the conference rooms, and from what I'm hearing, many businesses want tools that can help them navigate those things,” he said.

However, McQuivey believes that these tools shouldn’t be viewed as simply a short-term solution. Organizations should use them “to help change the culture, not just enforce a temporary policy,” he said.

The role of IoT

When it comes to technology that will enable offices to reopen safely, organizations should take a cue from digitally forward factories and manufacturing plants where smart technology and internet of things (IoT) devices are already prevalent, advised Ian Hughes, senior analyst for the IoT practice at 451 Research.

Factories use IoT technologies on production lines to react to machine failures but also to pre-empt them, he explained. This could take the form of a smart camera that can look at a dial on a machine, tell when the dial has an unexpected reading or is moving erratically and send off an alert to workers to fix the problem. Smart cameras can act as both IoT sensors and processing platforms, with many now able to perform machine learning processes on the device itself.

In an office setting or other public space, smart cameras can be used to monitor social distancing, Hughes said. “You train the camera to understand what the distance should be and how far two people are standing from each other. If they then get too close, the camera can say, ‘Those two people are too close in this area.’”

The camera doesn't necessarily have to identify the people, he added. It can simply trigger a warning to let management know there’s been a breach of social distancing guidelines.

Likewise, a camera could be used at a building entry to detect whether employees and visitors are wearing face masks. If it detects a person without a mask, it won’t open the door. Essentially, the same camera that six months ago told you a dial on a machine was not moving as it’s supposed to can now tell you if your employees aren’t wearing face masks.

Just as some companies had to scramble to invest in collaborative working tools at the start of the pandemic, Hughes believes many will scramble once again to make investments in IoT devices upon reopening their offices. Even before the pandemic, 451 Research had noted that companies were starting to take a greater interest in basic IoT devices — particularly cameras.

To accommodate this growing need, some of the startups that produce industrial machine learning and predictive maintenance tools have now added technology aimed at non-manufacturing workplaces such as schools, hotels, offices, and other public spaces. “A lot of those providers are seeing that expanded need from people that hadn't had to bother with that sort of stuff before,” Hughes said.

Ongoing considerations

Without the right technology solutions in place, offices will struggle to reopen; however, that’s not the only area of consideration for companies looking to fling open their doors.

‘Returner anxiety’ is a very real employee wellbeing issue that organizations need to be sensitive to. A May 2020 survey of UK workers conducted by YouGov for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CPID) found that 44% of respondents reported feeling anxious about the prospect of going back to work because of the health risks posed by COVID-19. The survey also showed that 31% of workers were anxious about commuting. (That figure jumped to 52% in London, where worker commutes are often longer.)

Those concerns have not diminished in recent months. A November survey conducted by the Resolution Foundation found that more than a third of UK workers are still actively concerned about the transmission of COVID-19 at work.

Speaking at Salesforce’s EMEA event, Frank Recruitment Group president Zoë Morris discussed the wider return-to-work considerations and how the company has dealt with them. With offices in cities around the world, Frank Recruitment has monitored the situation closely since January, setting up a dedicated team to look at local, regional, and country regulations and monitor any changes as they happen, Morris said.

“When we feel it’s getting to that point where local guidelines say that it's safe to open an office, we start to engage much more fully with that office,” she said. “We do a pre-questionnaire to all of our employees to find out how they're feeling in that office about going back, because it’s not just about, ‘Oh, great, the office is open and everybody can walk back in.’ They might be living with vulnerable people; they themselves might feel too vulnerable to go into the office.

“What we’ve seen for the offices that we have reopened is that in the early stages, you get only a small amount of people that are actually going to want to put their hand up and say, ‘We’ll go right back into the office the next day.’ So we’ve moderated and modified our approach at each office we open,” Morris said.

Businesses also need to consider how employees will get to the office, something that varies by location. In London, for example, around 53% of workers get to work via bus or train, compared to just 17% of employees throughout the rest of the UK. For offices based in cities that are largely inaccessible by car, government guidelines stating that people should avoid using public transportation pose another challenge to having employees return to the office, further highlighting that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Long-term office outlook

As things currently stand, reopening offices does not mean every employee will suddenly be sitting at a desk the first week. A combination of social distancing guidelines and limited office floorspace means that we’re likely to see the creation of the “hybrid office,” where some employees choose to come in and are able to work and collaborate seamlessly with colleagues who remain remote.

Creston’s Gross is a big champion of this model and says he has been speaking to several customers who are also ready to embrace this change.

Creston makes and sells hardware that facilitates and automates online meetings via tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams with an eye to boosting remote collaboration. A year ago, selling Creston’s hardware would often require explaining these collaborative working platforms to potential customers, Gross said.

“Now everybody’s an expert in Teams and Zoom,” he joked.

In the short term, the hybrid office will mimic the way most people worked for the majority of 2020, except some colleagues on video calls might be sitting at their desk, six feet away from anyone else and wearing a face mask, Gross said.

In the longer term, a new “work from anywhere” culture will become the new normal, Gross predicted, but companies will still need collaborative workspaces located close to major metropolitan areas. Although employees may spend most of their time working remotely, “if they do need to be with the team, if they do need access to enterprise-grade recording video and audio technology, they can quickly drive or take public transport” to one of those local collaboration hubs, he said.

Hughes, from 451 Research, also believes that few companies are planning to go back to the same sort of workplace they had pre-COVID-19. “We run a regular impact of COVID survey, and a very high percentage of companies are saying, ‘We don't need to go back to the office,’ as it's been proven that people, particularly office workers, can work from home,” he said.

Because of this, many organizations are now looking seriously at downsizing the amount of real estate they occupy. But even if you only have two people in an office, a full health and safety assessment will need to be done. “Whether you have two people in or 20, you still have to help them be safe,” Hughes said.

Forrester’s McQuivey believes that one of the biggest challenges is going to be changing employers’ preconceived notions around working. CEOs who have historically wanted to see people in the office to ensure productivity are going to have to adjust their mindset and understand that hard work is not directly linked to being physically present in an office, he said.

Executives who don’t embrace this mindset risk losing out on talent. Multiple surveys have shown that while many employees do want to return to the office in some capacity, the overwhelming majority want to continue being able to work from home at least part of the time. A Pew survey published in December found that just 11% of respondents who can do their job from home want to go back to a fully in-person work environment after the pandemic is over.

“We have all the data in the world that says people are just as productive, if not more productive, if they're not in the office,” McQuivey said.

Some companies have already taken the plunge, making permanent remote working the new normal. In October, Dropbox announced it was joining the likes of Twitter by abandoning physical office spaces in favor of working virtually. Dropbox hasn’t completely forgone physical buildings, however, instead establishing four on-demand in-person studios in San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Dublin.

In companies that are considering reopening offices, decision makers might be feeling some anxiety about allocating resources to ensure a safe transition. “There's no playbook for this,” Gross said. “I see with our own CEO; he's calling me up every single day asking ‘What is a Goldman Sachs doing locally? What have they said, what are they doing that we should be doing?’ But then in the same vein, Goldman Sachs is calling me up and asking about what we're doing. It's all unknown.”

That said, Gross noted that apart from concerns around health and safety, employees are excited about what these changes might mean for the future of work. “I think there is excitement in the fact that now employees feel empowered to work from anywhere,” Gross said.

New York, for instance, has long had a cultural problem when it comes to remote working, he said — there’s a perception that if you’re not in the office, you’re slacking off. “Now it's changing,” he said. “I think now people are excited about the fact that I can work from anywhere. I can work from Bryant Park or I can work from my apartment, and that's okay. It's acceptable and that's where the excitement lies.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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