An empty office space sitting idle.

Jump-Starting Return to the Office Plans

September 03,2020 Digital Workplace
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By VMware

We’re still in economically uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic, which had spread across the globe by March 2020, shows no signs of slowing down in the United States. However, as the months go on, companies are starting to discuss what a return to the office might look like. Some companies are punting that conversation completely, letting their workers continue to work remotely until at least 2021. But for others, they’re beginning to craft a strategy, one that has the needs of both workers and the business in mind.

From a purely physical perspective, the office of the near future will look radically different from the one employees left at the beginning of the near. New distincing procedures and capacity limits will be in place to minimize the number of works occupying the same physical space at any given time.

What might a return to the office look like? If or when companies start recalling workers back to the office, those employees will face an office that looks very different from the one they left several months ago. Temperature checks, contact racing, revised capacity limits are all considerations as companies reopen their offices and campuses. Open food containers, shared dinnerware and others may become things of the past, given up out of caution in favor of single-serving kitchen supplies and prepackaged food.

The office of the near future will require a mix of technical and non-technical solutions to be safe. From sneeze guards to contact tracing apps, employers will need a host of new policies in place to ensure workers can return to the office.

Companies will need to respond to employee concerns about returning to the office, reinvent the traditional space and reopen cautiously. Making office space more configurable and allowing for the flexibility to change and rearrange as the months go by will ensure a safer return to something resembling normal.

Reopening in the Footsteps of Others

For companies to reopen safely, there needs to be a comprehensive response and a cautious reopening, with an iterative approach that can take changes on the ground into account. The reopening shouldn’t be just a response to the short-term realities. In the long term, offices will need to be reinvented to address how employees work and how they want to work.

Reopenings at offices around the globe are already providing some clues as to what American workers can expect when their offices reopen. Asian countries are leading the way in showing what a post-COVID office might look like, with innovations like smaller office spaces and hybrid working arrangements where employees only go into the office a few days a week and telework the rest of the time.

Other actions taken around the globe include reservations for conference rooms, mandatory mask wearing in common areas and self-quarantine in the event an employee has been exposed to someone with COVID-19. By monitoring the successes of companies that are already reopening their offices, US companies can apply best practices to their own reopening plans.

Assuaging Fears About Returning to the Office

How can employers provide a positive employee experience to returning employees? Work cross functionally to ensure a smooth transition back to the office. The office’s reopening planning team should be a cross functional team that takes everyone’s concerns into consideration.

What might a return to something resembling normal look like? Companies should be aware that after months of working remotely, some employees might not want to return to the office, preferring to save time, money and energy by not commuting. Office spaces might need to be reduced.

Going back into the office will be perhaps the biggest decision area for employers in the coming months. Some employees will no doubt be anxious to get back to a more social environment. However, for others the fears of COVID exposure haven’t abated over the past few months. A recent study suggested that 70 percent of workers said there were several factors that affected their desire to return to the office.

For these employees, companies should consider hybrid remote working situations, where employees only go into the office a few days a week. Hybrid work situations when applied to the entire workforce also have the advantage of keeping the number of workers in a building low. By limiting capacity and rotating which employees are allowed in an office on any given day, companies can reduce the risk of community spread.

Supporting a Safe Return With New Hardware and Software Tools

Even as governments loosen pandemic restrictions, companies should be ready and willing to address the physical space of their offices. Nearly all offices and common areas will need to be modified in some way to make them safe for working again. New hardware might be required in order to return to work safely. Larger campuses might set up in-house contact tracing technology. Layouts will almost certainly need to change, as companies enforce social distancing rules.

Digital contact tracing tools can cut down on the labor intensive nature of traditional contact tracing methods and may be a good solution for companies that need to manage large workforces. Applications like VMWare’s Workspace ONE Proximity can assist companies trying to keep their employees as safe as possible, with features like proximity detection and built-in contact tracing.

Conclusion

If nothing else is certain in this world, this is: work will never be the same after the events of 2020. The COVID-19 crisis pushed offices into remote working situations. Now that the crisis has gone on for months, employees might feel apprehensive about returning to the office.

Employees can only do their best work when they feel safe both mentally and physically. Putting employees’ fears at ease can be achieved by proactively addressing the physical space, with new physical spaces and software that supports open communication. By showing employees that they’re heard and addressing their concerns, companies can begin the process of returning to the office.

Sources

  1. Canales, K. (2020). "Experts say the office as we knew it is gone and companies will need one-way hallways, sneeze guards, and other safety measures to let employees return. Here's what it could look like.” Business Insider
  2. Lewis, L. (2020). “Coronavirus catalyses overdue change in Japan’s offices.” Financial Times
  3. Connelly, F. (2020). “What a Return to Work Will Look Like in Offices Around the World.” Bloomberg
  4. Carlile Patchen & Murphy LLP. (2020). “Remote work considerations as the workforce enters a new era.” Columbus CEO
  5. Carucci, R. (2020). “How to prepare yourself for a return to the office.” Harvard Business Review
  6. Cleeland, N. (2020). “Contact Tracing for Employers.” SHRM

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