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Planning the return to the office: What enterprises must consider for the future of the workspace

(Image credit: Image Credit: Coffee / Pixabay)

Welcome back to the office. Wait in line for the elevator by standing on the new circles painted on the lobby floor — four people per elevator only, please, and everyone face a different wall. When you arrive at your floor, follow the one-way arrows to your desk space, where your co-workers are six feet away from you and separated by plastic dividers. The coffee maker is turned off, and the communal fruit bowl is empty, so bring your own refreshments. 

And don’t forget your mask.

While we’re still not sure what the enterprise will look like as companies bring their workforces back to the physical office, one thing is for certain: it won’t look like it did pre-pandemic. The differences will go beyond office workers using conferencing technology more often to communicate with colleagues working remotely (some permanently). It will involve making people feel safe at work, reducing organisational risk exposure, and implementing a range of specific safety measures and metrics to ensure cleanliness and social distancing at the office.

Planning your employees’ return to the office will entail a multi-step process. Here are just three of the key pieces enterprises must consider before they let their employees return.

Preparing the workforce to return

Prior to employees returning to work, it will be critical to communicate to employees any new policies and/or what to expect, and email is not necessarily the right platform for this. Communicating proper messaging and key information to employees should instead take two forms: unified communications (UC) solutions and digital signage.

UC/collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams or conferencing platforms like Zoom will help organisational leaders disseminate information in a one-to-many open forum while also allowing a place where employees can ask questions — consider them the 21st century version of a town hall meeting in an auditorium. Remember: if one person has a question, it’s likely others do as well, so creating a space where leaders can speak about policies and then open it up to live questions will be beneficial for the entire workforce.

Plan to have these meetings well in advance of the office actually reopening to give people time to process and prepare. Another tactic might be to create a separate Slack or Teams channel that allows people to ask questions as they think of them; leaders can monitor the channel and answer questions as they come in.

Once people begin returning to the office, digital signage will be key in communicating new social distancing policies around things like elevator scheduling/standing procedures and seating arrangements, or to remind people to wash hands frequently. Employees won’t absorb everything they read in an email or hear and see in a Zoom/Teams meeting and might feel overwhelmed with all of the information they’ve gotten.  Digital signage — which is inherently attention-getting and engaging, especially if content is updated regularly — can provide in-person reminders of previous communications as well as disseminate new information.

Controlling access and capacity

To comply with social distancing and to ensure safety, employers will need to manage occupancy of meeting rooms and control access to certain areas. Tactics can range from one-way arrows on floors that show people where to walk, to more technology-based possibilities.

Many buildings and office spaces use key fobs or key cards to control who enters the space, but now some may add temperature sensors as well. While a fever is not 100 per cent indicative of someone carrying Covid-19 — many carriers show no symptoms — an employee running a fever is unquestionably ill in some way, and can be denied access to the building and asked to seek medical attention.

Some organisations previously have used sensors to count how many people enter a building or campus, but this tactic will take on a new relevance in the era of social distancing because enterprises will need to have a full count of their employees and where they are working. Occupancy sensors tied to cloud-based control systems can indicate how many people are in which areas of the office and alert office or facilities managers if too many employees are congregating in one place, or if a room has gone beyond the new acceptable capacity.

Open floor plans, which have grown in popularity over the past 10 to 15 years, may shift back to closed-off environments. Staffing firm Robert Half found that 46 per cent of employees want their employers to change the office layout when they return to work, and 56 per cent worry about being too close to co-workers.

This means enterprises will have to rethink their office floor plans and potentially redesign them by moving people further apart or placing dividers around workspaces. Some enterprises will expand their footprint to allow for greater distance between employees, while others will reduce it and shift to staggered start times or hybrid schedules to create social distancing. Here’s an example of what that could look like: half of the workforce comes in on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while everyone works from home on Friday. Sensors can ensure only 50 per cent of employees maximum are in the office on any given day.

Scheduling spaces will become the norm as shared spaces become less available and capacity sizes decrease. Conference rooms and huddle spaces — and even casual areas like kitchens and lounges — will need to utilise occupancy sensors, scheduling panels and signage to indicate whether they are at capacity. And, many will need to be reconfigured to reduce capacity (taking half of the chairs from a conference room, for example). Digital signage can provide a no-touch view of occupancy in spaces, giving employees the information they need at a glance.

Reducing touchpoints and promoting cleanliness

Employees will understandably be wary about touching many surfaces once they return to work, and it will be the duty of enterprises to ensure they feel comfortable in an office again.

Some of the ways an office can reduce touchpoints include having lights that turn on when sensors detect that someone has entered a room, or adding foot stops to the bottoms of restroom doors so that they can be opened without using one’s hands, or replacing restroom water faucets with touchless versions.

Other tactics will rely on technology — automation, smart building features and touchless technologies. Employees may not want to touch conference room or office door handles if they don’t have to, so occupancy sensors tied into light-up panels (think of the on-air light in a television studio) outside rooms can communicate whether or not a room is occupied simply by checking the panel. These panels can be tied into scheduling platforms via the cloud, so that a conference room availability is reflected via both the online schedule and physical panel.

Conference rooms may move to cloud-enabled wireless sharing platforms that allow participants to share content from their mobile devices, tablets and laptops without actually plugging anything in — making presenting a more comfortable, touchless experience. These platforms can tie into room technology and UC platforms, allowing remote workers to present and participate as well.

Enterprises that formerly used “hot desking,” in which all employees were allowed to sit at any available desk, may discontinue this; those that don’t will have to implement rigorous cleaning procedures, as well as ways to track the cleaning and communicate to employees that a communal workspace is hygienic.

Communication will be key

Every enterprise is, of course, unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. However, no enterprise will be able to move forward without clear, concise communication that conveys new policies and procedures without introducing conflicting or confusing directives. Some employees will be uncomfortable with the “new normal” of the workplace, and that’s OK — as long as they understand these policies have been implemented for very good reasons, and that they are expected to follow them.

Before creating your policies, check in with your employees to learn their levels of fear and uncertainty, and what they expect you to do to make them comfortable and excited to return to the office. In addition, don’t forget to explore the multiple types of technologies that can help facilitate a safe, productive return to work for everyone.

Jimmy Vaughan, Technical Director of UC Solutions, Crestron