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Making the return to the office a safe ride

11 September 2020

Against the backdrop of potential employer liability, Raj Krishnamurthy discusses how facilities teams are using technology to visibly communicate the preventative measures being taken - and to reassure the wider office population.

WITH MILLIONS around the UK preparing to head back to the office for the first time in months, employers and office managers are making preparations for a smooth and safe return. Teams across facilities, real estate, technology and HR are all working together to ensure the safety of the workplace. Long-term workplace strategies are being developed and implemented. In the process, it is becoming ever clearer that leadership, change management, communication and technology will all play pivotal roles in this change.

In many ways, the pandemic has not changed the direction of office evolution, only accelerated it. Employers are under a legal obligation to maintain health and safety provisions and the government has released guidance on how best to ensure employee safety. This includes carrying out risk assessments, reinforcing cleaning practices, maintaining a two metre distance where possible and managing transmission risk where distancing is not possible. While employee behaviour might need to change, the means by which these processes are implemented are in line with many practices developing through office design over the previous decades.

It is undeniable that technology will play a key role in the development and successful implementation of these new practices. We have seen over the previous months the way data insights have been central to the governmental response and in educating the public. Offices have been integrating these processes into their daily functioning for many years, leading to the development of smart buildings. These innovations will now be more important than ever, finding newly central roles in footfall management and efficient targeting of cleaning practices.

Compliance and planning
First and foremost, employers, facilities managers and cleaning teams will need to feel confident they are prepared for the return of staff. The government guidance includes rotas, procedures and policies to enable social distancing and risk management. Employers are recommended to review floorplans and introduce one-way systems to limit flow.
Although many may be returning to the office in the coming months, it is unlikely that any buildings will be able to return to full occupancy before 2021. Programmes which monitor occupancy rates will play a central role in enabling the most appropriate measures to be put in place at any one time. Organisations will need to understand their occupancy threshold for safe practice and to keep track of when that threshold is neared. Those already utilizing smart devices will have a headstart but very rapidly, this technology will become the baseline for office safety.
These technologies will enable organisations to take a proactive occupancy-based approach. With mixed evidence about the length of time for which the virus can survive on different services, cleaning practices are at risk of being stretched in every direction. Ensuring regular high-quality cleaning practices alone is no longer enough. While regular cleaning will go some way to alleviate any “hygiene anxiety”, doing so in an un-directed measure will place a strain on cleaning resources, potentially leading to less efficient practices and costing more in time and cleaning products. Cleaning must be more frequent for high-contact surfaces such as desks, door handles and communal surfaces. Use of certain areas such as conference rooms will require thorough cleaning after each occupant. It is key to understand which are the areas that will require greater attention rather than increasing cleaning indiscriminately.
Solutions such as the Freespace Cleanreader are quickly becoming a vital asset. Real-time data can be used to alert the cleaning teams as soon as an area has been vacated so it can be cleaned immediately. 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 can also utilize occupancy data to inform staff how regularly cleaning needs to take place on any particular day. Existing floorplans combined with occupancy data, for example, can be used to create clear visual diagrams signalling which areas are due to be cleaned or are at higher risk due to high usage. Cleaning staff are equipped with handheld devices that receive data from sensors in the area. Push notifications can alert the cleaner to areas that have been vacated and require cleaning before the next occupant.

A key tool in the mix is the Freespace booking app to help employees plan their day into work. Enabling the reservation of a clean, socially distance desk for employees to use on their days at work, the app also helps manage communications and questionnaires to ensure employee wellbeing. Futher 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 contract tracing. 

Employee behaviour
Communicating effectively with employees is another element of the workplace that must be more efficient and effective than ever. New practices such as one-way flow need to be clearly signposted to make the process of returning to the office as hassle- and stress-free as possible. Practices such as social distancing, washing hands more regularly, and allowing time for cleaning certain areas between use may take time to adjust to and employees might need an extra nudge to make sure they remember.

The precautions taken may change daily or hourly due to occupancy and behaviour. It is important to be as agile as possible. Digital signage is a growing part of this communication process, enabling easy navigation in an environment which, for many, has suddenly become stressful. Clear signage will be vital in communicating what policies are in place and the behaviours required of staff, as well as which areas are safe and open for use and which are currently closed. As well as being more adaptable to change, research by Intel has shown that digital signage captures 400% more views than static signage. Of course, this isn’t limited to messages reminding employees to wash their hands and avoid touching their face. Displaying live data on socially distanced spaces to use, cleaned space availability and the cleaning regime in place will both reassure staff and make staying safe as easy as possible.
As offices will not yet be functioning at full capacity, an additional layer of staff management will be necessary. Two main options are being discussed: ‘split-group’ and ‘split-desk’ strategies. The former separates employees into different weekly groups. This should minimise disruption if an outbreak occurs as the number of people any individual may have come into contact with is limited. The latter concept alternates desk usage between days, leaving more time for cleaners to react to demand. Whatever strategy an organisation chooses to work with, it will need to clearly communicate these measures to its staff and explain the behaviours required of them. Digital messages both as signage and through smartphone notifications will make this process seamless.

Employee reassurance
Of course, while it is important to manage the behaviour of employees and ensure they are taking all required safety precautions, anxiety will play a part and employers must be aware. So much has changed so quickly in the past months. For many, the working practices they have taken for granted for years have changed overnight. Jobs have been at risk or furlough has left employees out of sort. Many have feared for their health and the health of their loved ones. Returning to the workplace can bring many back to a familiar and comforting sense of routine that has been sorely missing.
However, to ensure this is more reassuring than stressful, communication from management will be imperative. Cleaning, once a ‘behind the scenes’ profession often relegated to non-working hours, will now be seen as a reassuring presence in the workplace. Seeing the precautions taken will be an important element of the post-COVID office. In addition to signage around the workplace, smartphones are a useful way to keep staff up to date, allow them to plan when they will be in the office without exceeding safe occupancy, and quickly notify everyone of changes. Regular updates and clear signs reassure employees that everything possible is being done to manage risk and will allow them to get back to work without unnecessary worry or distraction.

The return to the office may at first seem like a huge challenge. In additon to implementing numerous changes, employers are aware of their liability and the fears of their staff. This return will be one more challenge thrown up by 2020 but it need not be a difficult one. There are numerous technologies which can allay any fears and keep staff safe. If anything, COVID-19 has demonstrated the ingenuity in the field of workplace design and management.

Raj Krishnamurthy is CEO of Freespace, a specialist in workplace technology designed to help organisations make science-based decisions.

For more information visit www.afreespace.com​