What a post-COVID-19 workplace could look like

What the average workplace will look like in a post-COVID-19 world will be very different than before workers left, experts say.

As provinces roll out their plans for reopening businesses, companies are already starting to consider how best to operate while taking into account the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus and the importance of keeping workers safe.

For companies with thousands of employees occupying open-concept office spaces, this means rethinking current work landscapes, productivity models, employee schedules and even how to use the elevator. 

The image of tall office towers with floor upon floor of employees crammed into rows of cubicles will likely be no more once employees begin returning to the office, explains Victoria Arrandale, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

“I think that this idea of maintaining physical distance is going to drive a lot of the decision-making, and for people who don't need to be in the office, there may be extended work-from-home situations,” Arrandale told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday. “For folks that do need to be in the office, [it] may need to be reconfigured in order to respect that six-foot [two metres] space between individuals.”

SIX GUIDING PRINCIPLES

Considering the possibility for transmission of COVID-19, global real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield has developed a how-to guide for reopening the workplace. The 34-page guidebook offers suggestions on how businesses can best prepare for the return of their employees, while ensuring the transition is both safe and efficient.

The guide was developed by an internal global research team involving members in Asia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, drawing from lessons learned in the company’s Asian offices that have already reopened for business.

Samantha Sannella, the company’s managing director for strategic consulting in Canada, focuses on planning workplace strategies for hundreds of clients and thousands of employees across the country. She and her core team of seven are working with various departments within Cushman and Wakefield to roll out a number of return-to-work policies in offices across Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Toronto.

“It's not a simple solution,” Sannella told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday.

According to Sannella, the company is currently analysing floor plans across its different offices and looking for ways to maintain physical distance. This is one of the measures forming part of the company’s top six guiding principles for workplace readiness.

“Each one of the things cannot be done without the other, so it's sort of a marriage of six ideas to make this work,” said Sannella.

The company’s first recommendation is to adequately prepare the building for the return of employees. This involves the development of cleaning plans as well as conducting inspections, and mechanical checks.

The second step involves deciding who is able to return to the workplace and when. Some employees, Sannella points out, are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and may not be able to return to work. Others may need to take public transportation to get to work, and feel uncomfortable about doing so. She insists that all of these things must be taken into consideration.

“I call it an organizational pulse check on seeing where your employees are now, what experiences they are having at home while working, and then deciding who can come back and how we might transition them into the workplace,” said Sannella.

Limiting the number of employees in the workplace is crucial to maintaining employee safety, insists Arrandale, and is one of the first things businesses should consider.

“As difficult as physical distancing is, it is, with what we know, the best measure that we can take to reduce transmission,” Arrandale said. “So I think the primary question is: ‘Do we need people in the office?’ and if so, ‘What is the bare minimum?’” 

She also points to the idea of rotating schedules so that employees alternate between working from the office and working from home during any given week. Arrandale foresees companies limiting face-to-face meetings between employees as well as contact in general, even when occupying the same physical space.

The third guideline involves controlling access to buildings and closely monitoring who comes in and out. This can involve performing health checks on employees or taking their temperature before they enter the building. Businesses can also consider redesigning gathering and lobby areas in the building and installing plexiglass shields, as well as providing hand sanitizer, wipes and personal protective equipment (PPE). According to Sannella, the use of PPE in Cushman and Wakefield’s Asian offices, along with good hand hygiene and physical distancing, have had great success in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

For the fourth principle, businesses are advised to develop a physical distancing plan. Aside from alternating work weeks between the office and home, and staggering the start and end times of shifts, companies can consider specifying seating arrangements across different parts of their office space as well as redesigning this space entirely. One low-cost, yet effective solution, says Sannella, is simply placing marks on the floor to designate the direction of foot traffic, helping to maintain the recommended two-metre distance between employees.

The fifth principle focuses on sanitizing. Sannella says increasing the cleaning and disinfection of common touchpoints – such as door handles and elevator buttons – as well as all workspace areas is important. 

Keeping disinfectants on or near desks is suggested, along with removing shared tools like whiteboard markers and remote controls. Sannella also points to the importance of transparency when keeping things clean in the office. 

“Before, cleaning was done at night time and you didn't see it, but now we're recommending something that I'm calling the ‘visible clean,’ which makes sure that employees can see that their space is being cleaned frequently and in greater detail than before, to give them increased psychological comfort in the workplace,” said Sannella. 

The final measure involves communicating protocols to employees in a way that is engaging while effectively managing change so that workers are aware of the environment they’ll be headed back into. This includes the distribution of a welcome kit to employees when they return to work, suggestions for mitigating fear, and organizing town halls and surveys.

“There's a lot of behavioral protocols and changes that go with working in the ‘new normal’…and we want to make sure that everybody is comfortable with that before they return,” said Sannella. 

Arrandale agrees that this is a crucial aspect of returning to the workplace.

“I think education and communication about both the risk that might be present and also prevention strategies need to be very clear…to be successful,” said the professor. “Everyone has a different perception of risk and a different tolerance of risk, so there's a need to ensure that the practices across the board are as good as we can get them.”

Sannella says she recognizes that completely eliminating the risk of catching COVID-19 in the workplace is not possible, but the goal is to do whatever is possible to prevent its spread.

“There's no such thing as a 100 per cemt virus-free office space,” said Sannella. “All these six things do is mitigate the risk – to what degree we're not sure, because some of those things are immeasurable, but it does give clients a choice and they can prioritize [measures] based upon their needs.”

WHAT OTHER COMPANIES ARE DOING

KPMG has followed similar steps by analyzing its offices in Asian countries to determine a list of best practices it hopes to apply here in Canada. The worldwide accounting firm has seen about half its workforce across Asia return to their offices. 

This return has been staggered and followed a tight regimen, explains Silvia Montefiore, Canadian managing partner for business enablement and operations at KPMG Canada. Employees returned to buildings by floor and employees were given schedules with varying start and end times, in addition to spending part of the work week working from home.

“We believe [the return of employees to the workplace] needs to be phased and gradual to do our part in keeping our people, clients and communities safe,” Montefiore told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday over the phone.

Montefiore also describes the monitoring of employee movement through the use of pass cards. Employees are not allowed to access certain desks and offices and the company has placed a limit on in-person meetings, which must include no more than four people keeping a distance of at least two metres between them. Additionally, the company has taken a more team-based approach in terms of workflow – employees work in groups alternating between the office and home. This is to make sure that if a team member gets infected, it is easier for others to isolate while continuing to work with clients.

Montefiore is currently working to develop a return-to-work policy plan for about 8,000 employees at more than 40 KPMG offices across Canada. She says the company will continue to analyze data gathered from offices overseas in order to determine the best approach and measures to implement in Canadian offices. As a result, the company likely will not reopen offices until July.

“You really need to start planning…earlier than you might think to get this done,” said Montefiore. “It’s a huge undertaking with lots of detail that you need to think through.”

Insurance company Sun Life Canada is also considering its own set of return-to-office policies once physical distancing measures are lifted, according to a statement sent to CTVNews.ca on Wednesday from company president Jacques Goulet. This includes the addition of plexiglass screens to reception areas and work desks. 

“When the time is right for us to open our offices, in addition to clear safety measures and a gradual approach, we’ve committed to our employees that it will be optional and informed by their individual needs,” Goulet states.

NO SOLUTION IS ‘ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL’

In working with clients, Sannella explains that, for the most part, companies are doing what they can to limit spending. This means looking for ways to implement measures that not only protect the health of employees, but are also practical and do not break the bank. With companies preoccupied with keeping workers employed, they are less willing to spend money on office reconfigurations, she says. 

“We're looking at this mix of how do we create distance within the workplace...with the protocols of behaviour, and combining those two ideas will give us solutions,” she said. “Ultimately, I suggest to everybody we work with to put as many strategies in place as you can possibly afford.” 

These strategies will no doubt vary from office to office. With each company having its own set of needs, there is no one size-fits-all-solution, explains Sannella. Not only will plans of action be customized, but they must also take into account government policies as different provinces continue to develop their own plans for reopening the economy. 

Protocols may also need to be tweaked depending on performance, which is why adapting is so important, says Arrandale.

“It does seem that there will be second and third waves of the virus and we are likely going to need to adapt how we work several times over the next months to years, so I think flexibility and nimbleness will be needed,” said Arrandale. 

While there’s no straight solution, one thing most can agree on is that the workplace is unlikely to return to what it was prior to the pandemic.

“I think that people will be more concerned about their personal health in buildings in the future and as an architect and designer, I'm very excited about that,” said Sannella. “I think that's something we should have been paying attention to all along so I do think this will call the people who create buildings in cities to look back and say, ‘what can we do better?’”

SPURRING TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION

One company aiming to do just that is BioConnect. It provides biometric access control solutions to verify a person’s identity before allowing them access into a secured space. Used by a number of companies, it provides employees access to company buildings that are otherwise guarded.

Employees arrive with their access card and through mobile two-factor authentication, they are able to enter the building. More recently however, the company has developed BioConnect Link, a new addition to the software that prompts a series of four questions centered on personal health. Employees are asked how they feel before stepping foot in the building. Based on responses, a recommendation will be made on whether they are healthy enough to enter, potentially preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Technology seems like it’s a great enabler to help facilitate a very rapid understanding of where the virus is, who’s contracted it and who else could be susceptible to it, because it’s so contagious,” Rob Douglas, founder and CEO of BioConnect, told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday over the phone. “It’s seems technology needs to be able to move at the speed of the virus itself in order to help us stay protected.”

This technology has been in the works for three years and was initially released last fall. The BioConnect Link feature, however, was only recently added in response to the pandemic. It is scheduled to be released in just a couple of weeks. 

“All of this, for us, is about preventing the second wave,” said Douglas. “As employees come back to the office and start interacting with people again, we want to prevent this second wave.”

“Every crisis is a cause for innovation,” said Sannella.

Edited by Adam Ward

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