The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and incredible challenges for millions of workers around the globe. In just a matter of weeks, the workforce at large has quickly and strategically navigated the sudden shift to remote working, while maintaining the symbiotic relationship between business continuity and employee well-being.
We have to start with why we are coming to the office. Working from home and virtual meetings have limitations. Given we are creative and social people and the workplace helps us connect, collaborate and be creative.
At the same time, companies need people to come together to shape culture. Without that, organisations will lose their competitive advantage over time.
Of course, front the most important factor is the health and safety of the people. But there’s a rising need to think beyond the now and the near, and to move past virus-centric solutions and to adapt human-centric solutions. We need to look at designing spaces that address people’s cognitive, physical and emotional wellbeing. Managing and leading that concept will become a key differentiator between a place of work centred on wellbeing or one simply centred on productivity.
Planning for the transition back to offices
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, organisations are outlining some considerations, tools, and methodologies for a smooth transition of employees back to the office.
Plan phased scenarios for returning to work: With limited seating available and essential workers identified, organisations can plan for phased re-entry to the office-based on role criteria. The time frame between each group phasing back in may be based on need and the continued health of employees.
Identifying essential workers: While many office workers have transitioned to working from home, some individuals cannot work remotely due to the nature of their role or for security reasons. Some of these individuals may still be going to the office or will be some of the first staff to phase back in.
Reconfigure flex spaces: While utilising every alternate desk may cut the office capacity in half or more, activating conference rooms, focus rooms, learning labs, and break out spaces as dedicated seating areas can increase the headcount of staff in the office while maintaining physical distancing. As workers return to the office, these spaces will again be used to enhance collaboration in a safe way.
Screen for admittance to the office: To mitigate the chance of bringing COVID-19 to the office, companies are implementing mandatory screening protocols for all employees every day before employees enter the office. Screening checks in a range of factors – right from travel-related questions to health symptoms. The results of the screen will indicate whether the individual should enter the workplace or remain home on each day.
While the pandemic situation is ongoing, it is very important to stay in touch with colleagues. Organisations have created a Covid-19 webpage, where information related to the pandemic is being shared/accessed by employees.
Most organisations have activated the ‘crisis management group’ to mitigate the pandemic situation, ensuring the safety of the colleagues and business continuity. Organisations including banks have prepared a handbook for their colleagues, briefing them about the safety measures ensured at the workplace.
Even the government is pushing organisations by limiting only a certain percent of staff to be allowed to work in the office premises through the guidelines issued on a regular basis. This includes travel advisory, social distancing norms, social gatherings, and directives to be followed while working in the office.
Regular disinfection and sanitization of the workplace and high contact surfaces are also being ensured. Organisations are exploring the surface coating solutions to keep the surfaces virus-free, effect of which lasts between 30 to 90 days.
Disinfection of the workplace through UV light is also being explored. There are solutions available for disinfection of air in HVAC by provision of UV lamps.
Strategic placement of hand sanitizers, providing PPE kits (face mask, hand sanitizer, contactless key, etc.) for employees who are resuming offices is being ensured.
Organisations are also advising specific categories of employees to work from home – Women colleagues who are pregnant or new mothers, staff with a pre-existing medical condition, co-habitants who are unwell, and people staying in containment zone.
Organisations have started sanitizing of company-owned vehicles at the premises and also limiting employees based on the number of travelers while commuting through personal vehicles like two-wheeler, four-wheelers.
Innovative social distancing norms are being introduced at workplace, meeting rooms, cafeteria, washrooms, common areas and elevators. Virtual tools are being used as alternate options for meetings/gatherings/celebrations. Offices are introduced with foot-operated doors and hand sanitizers, touchless water taps, etc.
To reduce virus exposure risk, organisations have staggered business hours and ensured business continuity.
Organisations have set up automatic temperature scanners at entry points which will detect the temperature, mask, ID card, etc.
Apart from the above, banks are also following split operations to ensure business continuity.
- Medical professionals including doctors, who used to visit offices earlier, are now extending support to organisation through virtual media, online / over the phone/e-mail consultation.
- Staff engagement is very important, and organisations are conducting online competitions, games, quizzes, etc.
The future workplace would revolve around the following parameters:
Wellbeing: Workplaces will be designed with a deeper commitment to the wellbeing of people, recognising that their physical, cognitive and emotional states are inherently linked to their safety.
Physical and digital platforms will enable and encourage the active pursuit of wellbeing.
Food and beverages will be central to workplace experience, employee wellbeing and productivity.
Visible from a distance: Many organisations are considering adopting new circulation patterns upon a return to the workplace. They will be asking people to walk their space in one direction to avoid bumping into other colleagues and eliminate close encounters in the hallways.
Visual cues about density: Many organisations are planning a phased approach as they seek to return people safely to the workplace. They may start with 50% occupancy and increase that over time. Yet, regardless of how many people are in the office, there’s a tremendous benefit to understanding which areas are “hot spots” for activity and helping people find less-populated spaces to work each day.
Safety, Secure, Resilient: It is also necessary to be crisis ready – being able to adapt easily to possible economic, climate and health disruptions in the future. This new age of cleanliness and hygiene requires utilisation of new technologies and anti-microbial materials.
Distributed workforce: Companies are starting to look at the utilising smaller out of town locations or satellite hubs rather than a central business district location. These demands are likely to be managed through booking systems.
Connectedness: Amenities, curation and technology will need to support networking, workshops and collaboration, and wellness and cultural events. A social destination providing a sense of community to connect with the brand and collide with colleagues is equally important. This is the age of ‘humans in a machine’ -- where virtual online collaboration tools combined with full immersive video conferences are likely to replace business travel and face-to-face workshops.
We’ve heard over and over again since the onset of the coronavirus that the best way to stop the transmission is to wash our hands. We’ve been told to stop touching our faces and avoid shaking hands. So, as some organisations begin to return to the workplace, there’s a logical focus on changing behaviours to avoid unnecessary contact. The good news is — the technology already exists to create a more hands-free workplace
Touchless reservations: Reserving a space in the office can mean walking around until you find what’s available and then touching an on-demand device to secure the room’s use. We no longer need to wander around aimlessly searching for space and passing other people while we do it, and we don’t want to touch devices others have used unless they’ve been cleaned first.
Auto-Book and Auto-Release are in place to add more safety to the office environment by automating the booking experience when someone walks into a space or doesn’t show up at all. The room knows when it’s occupied and when it’s empty and can automatically book the space or release it without anyone having to touch a thing.
Booking space with a phone: Before the coronavirus, most of us didn’t think twice about using the on-demand reservation feature in our room reservation system. But now, touching a device so many others have touched doesn’t sound very appealing. Hence, there’s now an iOS app that connects to the workplace and lets employees use their smartphone to select space requirements, see what’s available, reserve a room and share it with colleagues.
Addressing post-COVID workplace challenges
As the COVID-19 crisis begins to ease, and organisations plan to bring employees back to the office, a flood of questions arises. While the answers to these questions are different for each company and culture, the return to work with a human-centric approach that combines the latest information from global health experts, company-wide surveys, and employee round tables would be the solution to bring employees back to the office.
Division: To respond to market demands for solutions that support post-COVID guidelines, design, engineering and marketing teams worked in sprints to rapidly prototype and launch ‘shielding solutions’ -- a collection of screens designed to retrofit or reconfigure existing spaces. These screens were added to the open-plan leadership space, allowing colleagues to work together without direct, face-to-face interaction.
Density: An audit of all spaces was done to identify changes required to meet social distancing guidelines. To create the necessary six-feet/two-meter distance and decrease density, workstations were pulled further apart wherever possible or removed completely.
Geometry: Shared spaces offer the greatest ability in the future to flex as our needs toggle between creating greater distance and coming closer together. Furniture in shared spaces is often freestanding and can easily be moved apart to accommodate distancing, rearranged to change geometry or act as a shield to create division.
To reduce face-to-face interactions, Height-adjustable desks and freestanding screens add extra protection by preventing face-to-face interactions between people seated directly across or nearby one another.
Enabling collaboration: Spaces that bring people together in more residentially inspired, comfortable settings foster productivity and performance. To support physical distancing protocols, elements like Flex Freestanding Screens were placed in shared spaces to add privacy that is critical to making these spaces productive.
The screens support acoustical, visual, informational and territorial privacy – all of which contribute to creating a sense of psychological comfort and security – helping people feel at ease, free to share ideas and make work visible.
Signage + Sanitation: To continuously signal that a distance of six-feet/two-meters must be maintained, visual cues on walls and floors remind people to stay at a distance as well as indicate recommended traffic patterns in busy corridors to avoid face-to-face contact.
Sanitation stations have been placed throughout the LINC (Learning & Innovation Centre) to keep the office as clean and safe as possible. The company is also accelerating its investment to replace devices with touchless experiences (i.e. faucets, soap dispensers, bottle filling stations, etc.) and making changes to the HVAC systems as needed to improve ventilation.
The changes made in the LINC demonstrate how to effectively balance the requirement for safety and hygiene without compromising design or performance. Our employees are coming back – confident in the changes made and energized to be working with colleagues again in person.