Robin Davies explores how technology is empowering a range of back to work strategies, making the transition simpler and safer for all.
Australians are slowly filtering back to work and the Government has issued its ‘return to work’ plan involving ten national COVID-19 Safe Work Principles. These have been designed to assist businesses in managing their workplaces and ensuring a smooth return to work. These principles highlight that, as COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, “businesses, workers and other duty holders must work together to adapt and promote safe work practices, consistent with advice from health authorities”.
This will ensure that workplaces are prepared for social distancing and can provide exemplary hygiene measures. Safe reoccupation strategies will require a combination of strong leadership, change management, meaningful communication and effective technology.
Using occupancy data
A report published by one of Australia’s largest property fund managers, QIC Global Real Estate, in November 2020 found that approximately half of Australia’s workforce will continue to work from home for at least two days per week following the pandemic. This prompts some serious questions about surplus corporate real estate (CRE) as it is expected to spark a five percent fall in net demand for office space. The report also revealed that demand for office space is projected to be reduced by 700,000 square metres from pre-COVID-19 levels this year and another 300,000 square metres in 2021.
In addition to tuning in to the fears, needs and wants of employees, business leaders and department heads must understand what their business needs before deciding on a workplace strategy. This mass home working experiment has changed what the workplace experience is for employees and any future workplace design alterations must reflect that.
The QIC Global Real Estate paper provides evidence that the majority of organisations will turn to a hybrid working model to reduce the spread of the virus and accommodate employee and business needs. Workplace technology is an essential tool to support this. To this end, two return to work strategies are already proving popular:
- the ‘split group’ strategy involves separating employees into different weekly groups to support business continuity in the event that one group becomes infected
- the ‘split desk’ strategy enables the alternating usage of desks between days, creating maximum usage of the space overall and more time for cleaning teams to react to the demand.
Strategies like these require live data to be effective. Programs which monitor occupancy rates will play a central role in enabling the most appropriate measures to be put in place at any one time.
Before COVID-19, Willis Towers Watson, a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company, introduced Freespace sensors and signage across its Sydney offices. It has also now utilised our social distancing design and mobile app to allow its employees to reserve and have dedicated space allocated to them in line with social distancing and corporate rules.
The Freespace App can actually do more than what WTW currently uses it for. It can help colleagues plan their entire day. Enabling the reservation of a clean, socially distanced desk for employees to use on their days at work, the app also helps manage communications and questionnaires to ensure employee wellbeing. Further, it helps users to coordinate their visits into work with an inner circle of colleagues ensuring they are there together on the same days and find safe spaces in the vicinity of each other easily.
The app, which integrates with smart tags on the desks, also becomes a key tool in office based contact tracing.
Turning to technology to address hygiene concerns
Prior to COVID-19, office-based workers would have expected cleaning to be an ‘out of hours’ task. Now, however, seeing cleaners in the workplace adds a welcome dose of reassurance and reminds workers to stay alert. Visibly seeing cleaning activities in the office can also instil a sense of trust in the environment and the organisation. However, there is a risk that this will place a strain on cleaning resources, potentially leading to less efficient practices and costing more in time and cleaning products.
Cleaning must be tailored so that high-contact surfaces such as desks, door handles and communal surfaces are cleaned regularly and after use. Other shared areas such as conference and meeting rooms and phone booths will either need to be cordoned off or, if in use, signage will determine their capacity. These spaces will require thorough cleaning after every use via an occupancy based cleaning program. It is key to understand which are the areas that will require greater attention rather than increasing cleaning indiscriminately and real-time occupancy data is vital in this pursuit.
Real-time data is accessed via handheld devices such as the Freespace Cleanreader. This alerts cleaning teams as soon as an area has been vacated so it can be cleaned immediately. Cleaning staff also receive data from sensors in the area and push notifications alert the cleaner to areas that have been vacated and require cleaning before the next occupant. The area can then be recorded as having been cleaned, releasing it back into the ‘availability pool’ and making others aware that it is safe for use.
This simple process is a highly effective way of ensuring the safety of all areas and reassuring staff they are not at any unnecessary risk. This technology also uses occupancy data to inform staff how regularly cleaning is taking place on any particular day, offering reassurance in the process.
Displaying live data on socially distanced spaces to use, cleaned space availability and cleaning regime in place will help to guide staff and reduce cross-contamination. Space bookings and occupancy sensors which are linked to cleaning systems and processes provide a highly effective and visual reassurance of internal COVID-19 control measures.
Taking a long term approach
Despite COVID numbers dropping throughout Australia, employers will need to remain alert, proactive and nimble given the highly unpredictable situation. A workplace data-led approach will support this and ensure longevity when it comes to business continuity, workplace safety and compliance. Workplace technology data can also support business leaders as they challenge plans to downsize their CRE portfolio.
The return to the office may seem like a huge challenge. In addition to implementing numerous changes, employers are aware of their liability and the fears of their staff. This return will be one of the first challenges to address as we head into 2021. However, there are numerous workplace technologies that can allay any fears and keep staff safe. If we can take away one positive from this, it’s that COVID-19 has demonstrated the resourcefulness and creativity in the field of workplace design and management.
Discovery session: Technology Supports the Return to Work
Please join us for our Webinar discovery session where we will be joined by a panel of workplace experts to discuss the role of technology in providing a safe and assured return to the office.
We will explore how technology can help organisations manage attendances and maximise safety, productivity and collaboration.
We go on to re-imagine the role and purpose of the office in the living with COVID-19 era where new hybrid working arrangements will be the new normal for many people.