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How technology can change behaviour as we prepare for a safe return to work amidst Covid-19

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Pressmaster)

Covid-19 has forced organisations to undertake a grand remote working pilot. Few were prepared for a level of change that has well and truly eclipsed ‘change management’ as we know it.

Those already accustomed to remote working, have found themselves at a distinct advantage versus those who’ve been thrown headlong into a brand-new world, who are grappling with ensuring their staff working from home have the equipment they need, and that they can access essential applications and services easily and securely.

Yet the real ‘new normal’ is a state of flux for everyone. Private and public sector organisations of all sizes find themselves straddling remote working strategies and strategies for a safe return to work. And, as lockdown restrictions ease, it’s clear that the situation is… unclear. While many hope for a return to pre-Covid operations, few believe it’s going to happen any time soon and some are sceptical about whether it will happen at all.

One thing is for certain: the situation is complex and the path ahead is still unclear. Governments can only rely on research and modelling to make best guesses that inform policy. Meanwhile, business leaders prepare to comply with policy and steel themselves for an array of possible scenarios.

Cross-functional teams that include Facilities/CRE, HR, IT, Operations and other specialists are leveraging technology to virtualise their operations and interactions where possible, while keeping their eye firmly focused on the prize: the safety of their people.

If your organisation is new to remote working, preparing policies and implementing new tools are just a few components of the wider challenge. It is, truth be told, not so much a technology or process challenge we’re facing today as it is a psychology challenge. Technology adapts with much less resistance than humans; it’s no wonder then that Change Management continues to be a headache for many organisations.

Despite this, time is not a luxury we possess, so the pressure is on to build new habits, working styles, skills and cultures. Rather than ‘telling’ people to change while waving thick policy rule books at them (when the ink is barely dry), the ideal approach is to adopt new tools that naturally shift behaviour as you use them.

This is the thought process we adopted at Smartway2 when designing the ‘rules engine’ in our product. While other meeting room solutions for booking tools, desk booking and resource scheduling applications were busy designing their systems to cater for a relatively narrow set of circumstances, our team was obsessing over flexibility, from day one.

We never imagined that this concept of creating a tool that can bend and flex to almost any workflow would be quite as mission critical as it has become in recent weeks. This has enabled us to identify the role it can play in ensuring best practice when it comes to a safe return to work:

  1. Action social distancing in the office, by making sure people can only book desks that are at a safe distance from one-another. It can also be helpful to stagger bookings so people can only use certain hot desks on particular days.
  2. Social distancing in conference rooms, cafeterias and other shared spaces. It’s advisable to reduce the capacity of meeting rooms, and this could be done in conjunction with allowing people to book alternative ‘over-spill’ spaces to meet, work, or eat lunch.
  3. A contact tracing function is essential, and by running reports to understand who sat at each desk and occupied each room can help you protect your colleagues in the event that someone falls ill.
  4. Sanitation has never been more important, and adding in extra cleaning time and implementing sign-off and release procedures for desks and rooms, ensures facilities are decontaminated before use.
  5. Parking is set to become an issue too. Given the increased reliance on the use of private vehicles resulting from worries about using public transport, helping people to find a space and maintain a safe physical distance keeps them safe even before they’ve entered the building.

Perhaps this approach is a metaphor for the design of all things in today’s unpredictable world. We have all been reminded to remember that we don’t know what we don’t know – and to act, create and implement accordingly.

When it comes to strategies and plans for a phased return to the workplace, organisations with new ways of working already in place - from hot-desking systems and workplace neighbourhoods to flexible workplace scheduling tools and agile working processes - are a step ahead, while others find themselves grappling with the epic task of completely changing the way they work.

Many leaders are rising to the challenge. Our breakneck journey into the future of work has been somewhat seat-of-the-pants, but workforces are coming together to undertake ambitious projects for protecting their co-workers and the sustainability of their organisations. We have been forced to prioritise the essential – essential workers, essential activities, essential supply chain components, essential strategies. Not to mention prioritising, first and foremost, the health and well-being of our colleagues, our customers and their families.

We all face scenario-planning at a whole new level, as expecting the unexpected becomes critical to achieving these aims. What if there’s an outbreak of Covid-19 in our workplace? What if people can’t get to work due to travel restrictions or fears of using public transport? Where can people turn if they have any questions or concerns? What resources are critical for our business to operate? What tools do we need to implement to control social distancing in the workplace? Do we have a communication plan in place to keep an open dialogue with employees, partners, suppliers and customers? Can we operate effectively if people need to work remotely for a prolonged period of time?

Questions like these are at the forefront of every leader’s mind.

Yet the real question remains: how adaptable is your organisation, in terms of people, process and technology?

John T. Anderson, CEO, Smartway2