Many things remain uncertain as we progress through the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing measures, though relaxed slightly, remain in place – and the majority of people are still working from home. However, the UK government has indicated its desire to get the economy re-started, and many office-based businesses are keen to get back to a more normal way of working.
Reopening the office, though, presents plenty of challenges. Just as business leaders have got used to running their organisations remotely, they will now need to prepare to get workers back in the office – all the while contending with the invisible danger that is coronavirus.
Reopening your office
With that in mind, we’ve collated some of the best tips and strategies – including from government advice – on how to reopen your office safely, productively and efficiently. It’s worth noting, of course, that things can change at any moment, depending on the government’s guidelines and how the numbers of cases and fatalities change.
It perhaps goes without saying, but this is important stuff. Andrew Hewitt, Forrester analyst and co-author of a report on the issue, told technology publication ZDNet: “What I tend to say to business executives is that if you mess this up now, it’s going to have long-term implications in terms of your ability to retract and retain talent. People tend to remember negative things, and they won’t forget. This will stick out as a pivotal moment for organisations.”
Who comes back first?
The first question to answer is who to bring back. It may be obvious, but you cannot bring back all your staff immediately – it will not be safe to do so. Therefore, the best strategy is to bring back to the office those staff who are most required there. According to Forrester analyst Hewitt, that’s likely to be IT staff and facilities staff. Those IT and facilities staff need to be in the office to a large extent because they are physically required there – and because they can help to make the office safe and work-friendly for other staff that return later.
The next set of people who should come back to the office are those who will benefit most from it; perhaps those that need to access specialist equipment or who collaborate in a manner not conducive to remote working.
What about mental health?
It may also be worth considering whether it’s best to bring back those who have struggled most with remote working, for instance those who have had difficulties with mental health as a result of the lockdown.
A caveat to that, though: it is of course imperative that you do not bring back those who are physically vulnerable and who have been instructed by the government to shield at home. And if you survey your staff to find out who can and can’t return to the office on health (mental or physical) grounds, you must be careful how you handle that data.
A neat summary from Kevin Ellis, PwC UK chair and senior partner, who said this after the company announced it plans to get 15% of its UK workforce back in the office: “The first staff members to return will only be those whose essential work for the firm or clients will significantly benefit from being delivered from an office. We’re also keen to support those who are finding working from home tough.”
A staggered approach
It may be worth considering a staggered approach, when reopening your office. It’s also always worth keeping an eye on government guidelines as they watch the numbers, as well as advice from industry bodies. And for the staff that do return to the office, it’s likely that a rotating shift system will be necessary to help ease the return in a safe manner.
Safety is, of course, the ultimate priority at this point. That means lots of things will have to change. Not only must there be fewer staff in the office at any one time, in order to adhere to social distancing measures, but the physical layout of the office will be different, too.
Some companies are considering partitions between desks – in a move that many are saying will prompt the end of the open office revolution and take us back towards cubicle-style offices.
Others are looking at more sophisticated efforts, taking advice from consultancies which look at how people move around the office and interact with each other. It may be possible, through signage and foot traffic management, to re-open the office and subtly keep too many staff from congregating in one place. That includes in break areas as well as at the desk.
There are also technological safety tools. Some offices are considering measures like hands-free lifts, coffee machines and toilet flushes, all of which will improve hygiene. Of course, sanitation stations and sinks for hand-washing will definitely become more prominent, too.
And heat-detection cameras are a consideration for many businesses. These cameras can tell if someone is suffering from a high temperature and the employer may send the worker home, if there are fears they are ill. A word of warning, though: such measures are arguably a serious invasion of privacy and will need a lot of safeguards to comply with data protection and health laws.
Another consideration, as you look at reopening the office, is the UK’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The rules have changed, and there are a few things to bear in mind as people come off furlough. Law firm Lewis Silkin has lots of details on those changes, but perhaps the most important things to remember are that it will end in October and that businesses will soon need to start contributing more to the scheme.