Bringing people back to work in the age of Viruses

One of the more interesting questions we are being asked these days is how and when will companies start bringing their workers back to the office?

As you can imagine, opinions are everywhere on this subject, but after talking to some of my government contacts, and some IT managers whose job it is to get people back to work, I see a bit of a pattern emerge.

The number one thing for sure is that the office they left, with its open spaces and areas to roam campuses freely, will have new rules.

The first rule will be they must sit at least six feet apart, and their spaces will need to have dividers. So companies who had open office spaces, where people sit side by side, will be banned completely.

Company cafeterias will have reduced seating to accommodate six feet spacing. That means people will have to make reservations to eat in cafeterias or company restaurants, while most will probably resort to packing their own lunch pt going offsite if needed.

Even open spaces will have new seating arrangements to favor the six feet rule. Desks may have UV lights at each desk to kill bacteria on contact.

When workers enter the office, they will have to pass through a temperature checking system like the ones they have at the airports in China. These cover wide areas and can identify a person who has a temperature above normal as they pass through the area. If a higher temperature is noted, they will be sent home. These are none intrusive, and unless you know it is there, you would not even know you were going through this temperature check, if not for the signs in the airports in China that that ID them.

The temperature taking systems at first will be done by hand sensor guns, but I am told that government recommendations most likely will include these larger temperature testing system at every entrance.

Conference rooms will have less capacity as people will need to sit six feet apart. And signing up to use one will be mandatory. At first, workers may still be asked to wear masks at work, but as the threat level of virus contact goes down, that could be waived.

No company will bring everyone back at one time. Two valley companies I talked with will bring them back in staggered groups. One company’s plan will be to bring back a 4th the first week, another 4th the second week, and so on. And will offer work-at-home options to at least 30% of their total workforce if they can work from home.

In fact, most companies are seriously looking at allowing many white-collar workers to work from home at least 2-3 days a week, and more if that would work. The biggest complaint we have heard from WFH folks is the disruptions from school-age kids who are also home since schools are closed. Many believe working from home will be much better when the kids go back to school, hopefully in the fall.

Many working from home means that on-site management of staffing could change the demand for commercial real estate. Google recently backed out of a very large real estate project, North of their Mt View campus. On the other hand, downtown San Jose’s transit campus will go forward with an opening date of 2021.

Video conferencing systems will become mandatory in all conference rooms as they will be bringing more people to these in-house conferences from remote locations. This used to be considered a nice-to-have feature but will move to be a strategic one in this new era of office design.

Given the kind of physical changes, companies are going to have to make to their working environment, bringing back most of their staff may still be a way off. These recommendations are about to be floated to the big companies, who will need to start making physical design changes to their campuses before they can bring even half of their staff to on-site facilities.

One thing that seems to be in the mind of a lot of business leaders is that they need to invest and design around the fact that another Pandemic could happen in the future. The smart CEO’s and CIO’s are thinking way ahead and are putting into place new office designs and worker protections so that they are never caught flat-footed in the future.

These fundamental rule changes for office design and worker protection are just the start of a major business, work, and life transformation caused by this Virus. I suspect it is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the radical changes all industries will have to adapt to in order to get people back to work.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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