Whether you’re doing it to support your customers or simply stay afloat, it may be time to start sending at least some of your employees back to the office. But even with vaccinations finally becoming a reality, employers will need to tread carefully, which means deploying new technologies and building measures (depending on your state and municipality) to keep employees safe and your return-to-work (RTW) transition legal. Several human resource (HR) and facilities management software vendors are looking to help with new solutions.
If you’re the employer, selecting these new products will mean making careful choices, taking into account the needs of your particular business and how it works. You also need to remember that the pandemic has irrevocably changed the modern workplace, both now and very likely into the permanent future. The current state of the coronavirus is only one consideration, though an important one right now. The virus is transferred in close proximity (within six feet), mainly through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. What the newer COVID variations bring to this equation may change things, so you’ll need to pay attention there, too. This makes restrooms, elevators, hot desks, meeting rooms, and open-concept offices high-risk environments.
Keeping work areas safe and solving other problems, like creating a COVID-aware staff and shift schedule, gathering data on potentially infected employees or visitors, and implementing a new alerting and escalation process are just some of the problems that this host of new COVID-19 office management solutions aims to solve.
While you can find dedicated software for space management (to help redesign your office interior and keep employees properly distanced) as well as real-time contact tracing solutions (so you know who might be infected and where they’ve been so you know who else is in danger), there’s a third category of RTW tools that manages all the gray areas in between, like access control, pandemic communications, policy creation, support for infected employees, and more.
A survey titled, The Rise of The Hybrid Workplace, conducted by Dimensional Research and Cisco Webex in October, 2020 revealed (not surprisingly) that 99% of companies are planning sweeping changes to the workplace as a result of COVID-19. These changes include things as diverse as adding more private cubicles and dividers, rotating in-office attendance requirements, and implementing stark new office sanitation and air-quality requirements.
The same survey also showed that 94% of companies say technology would benefit them by providing a safer work environment. The survey further revealed that 77% of organizations plan on increasing work flexibility, while 53% have decided to shrink office sizes with at least some employees continuing to work remotely.
But your impending changes will likely go even deeper than that, and your choice of RTW tools will need to reflect those needs most important to you. For one, returning to the office means you’re asking employees to leave the safe bubble of their homes. Depending on where you are, this will mean that you, the employer, may need to become directly involved with your employees’ daily commute.
“Employers have done a good job making sure offices are safe and sanitized with protocols to keep them that way. But since public transportation remains the primary mode of getting employees to the office, safety [there] is an entirely new challenge,” said Dave Bryant, a vice president at One Workplace, a leading commercial interiors company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Giving employees alternatives and safer ways to get to work, like corporate buses and ride sharing services that have cleaning protocols,” he says, “are options employers should [now] consider to get workers to and from work.”
And that’s only the first part of the safety equation. “When employees walk through the front door, companies need to be mindful about the experience they’re creating,” Bryant cautions. Strict safety protocols and rigid logistic processes can weigh down on employees, decreasing their productivity and even their desire to come to work at all. He advises carefully planning ways to safely reopen workplaces using processes that are supportive of employee wellbeing and foster a positive office culture.
Employers aren’t the only ones who need to take returning to the workplace seriously; employees have important issues to consider, too. Many employees have managed to remain productive and maintain previous performance levels even while working remotely. But working from home can be challenging, especially if multiple persons are all working or studying from smaller homes where getting privacy or even just some peace and quiet can be downright impossible. Caring for children can also be a huge time burden, especially if parents need to act as teachers even just some of the time. Finally, sharing residential Internet bandwidth can be troublesome, too, certainly when half the family wants to game while the other half has to video conference.
Even for those employees who’ve found themselves more productive without having to commute to work; there are some new and unexpected considerations. An important one for both employees and employers is a new set of benefit priorities.
“In a survey of Fringe users, we found that 80% of employees felt the WFH era permanently changed the way they look at benefits,” says Jordan Peace, co-founder and CEO at Fringe, a platform for personalized lifestyle benefits. “We found 84% said they believe that lifestyle perks will be more valuable in a post-COVID world than in-office perks and amenities, even after the return to the office,” he continued. According to Peace, his employees were looking not just for more flexible benefits, but ones that helped them meet immediate needs rather than what they’d find in the more standard benefits packages that HR might normally offer.
“Couple that with the fact that the workplace won’t look the same for a long time, and employers will have to take a critical look at their perks and benefits strategies to ensure they’re making the necessary adjustments,” Peace said. Otherwise employers risk either losing current talent or being disadvantaged when hiring new workers. From an employee’s perspective, they need to take a much closer look at the benefits packages being offered by both current and prospective employers to make sure they’re getting the best for themselves and their families.
At the outset, addressing these needs appropriately will be entirely dependent on increasing communication between managers and employees. Only with regular and two-way conversations can businesses hope to discover what employees expect from a COVID-safe office, what benefits they think they might need, or how they hope companies will help them with the daily commute. This means when choosing an RTW toolset the ability to add new communication channels or better leverage existing ones is paramount.
Then there are all the other considerations mentioned above, which together represent a lot of ground to cover for any single software product. This is why you’ll find that different products support such varied capabilities. Below, we look at six general RTW solutions, all of which can help with transitioning employees back to the office. However, as each seeks to accomplish this mission a little differently, you’ll want to evaluate them carefully and make sure they address what is most important to your workforce.