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Inviting employees back to the office – if you dare

Just because your state or city allows you to bring staff back to the office doesn’t mean that the facilities are ready for them to work safely. Here’s what you need to consider before employees return – assuming you can convince them to do so. Don’t count on that.

This is a now-common tale: The developers and the rest of the company staff have been working at home since March. For the most part, things have gone well enough. After some initial glitches, the team is productive, reasonably happy (given the additional stress), and their goals are met.

However, the day is coming when you no longer have to keep everyone out of the office. You can bring them back. Or can you?

Decorating the petri dish

Before you bring staff back to a shared space, you have to comply with a new bunch of rules about office work to meet post-covid-19 guidelines. While the specific details may differ where you are, all of the new workplace rules include social distancing requirements. Almost certainly, your pre-covid-19 workplace doesn’t allow for six feet of space between workers.

The changes aren’t trivial. You need physical reconfiguration of work areas. Desks need to be farther apart, possibly with barriers between work stations. (So much for the alleged benefits of collaboration in an open office.) Because you probably don’t have space to move everyone apart, you need to decide whether you need everyone in the office at the same time – which means cultural impacts that are as important to think about as building airflow.

Let’s assume for the moment that you do want to bring people back into the corporate headquarters – or that you need to, for reasons of security. Here are the adjustments to make now, before people return to their commutes.

Beyond office space

According to Marina Vaamonde, CEO of real estate investment firm PropertyCashin.com, companies have to arrange for more parking than they had pre-Covid. The reason, she explains, is that fewer workers are willing to share space on public transportation. “People want to drive their own cars into work, so you need more parking,” she points out.

The office itself needs a significant redesign. “You need to have airflow and outdoor space,” Vaamonde explains. “Now that all of the communal indoor spaces are closed or used for offices, people want to have an outdoor area where they can meet and breathe fresh air.”

In fact, says Giridhara Raam M, product evangelist at Zoho Corporation, protecting employees requires a complete rethinking of the office itself. “Considering most of the work spaces operate with a centralized air conditioning system, it is better to avoid it. Work spaces need to be redefined; cubicle systems and socially distanced seating spots with free air flow should be adopted at least for a year. Open offices are even more satisfying than closed spaces, due to droplets.”

The physical configuration of the office has to change. “Cubicles are coming to an end,” Vaamonde says, because they don’t allow for social distancing.

But while barriers can be built around the cubicles, Vaamonde believes they won’t be necessary. The employees won’t be there to use them.

Expect big central offices, such as the ones in downtown Houston where Vaamonde works, to remain mostly empty. Employers may move to smaller offices in the suburbs, she predicts. “They will be more like coworking spaces where you have spaces for a day.” The newly-envisioned office will have more open space, providing larger areas where social distancing can be maintained.

All that assumes your employees are ready to come into the office, however. Don’t count on that.

You might want employees to return to the office. Good luck with that plan

Your staff has been working at home for nearly six months. Many of those people are disinterested in coming back to an office for work. Others may feel that they only need to come into the physical plant occasionally, when they need access to services that are only available in the office, such as a specific test platform that can’t be reached via a cloud connection. And with so many cloud services nowadays, those are rare.

Sarah Riegelhuth, CEO and founder of Grow My Team, which specializes in hiring and engaging remote professionals, thinks that the ultimate resolution is for workforces to be mostly remote. “This allows people to live where they want to be,” she says. It also permits flexible schedules, and other practices that enable staff to be more productive. (One reason: less time lost in social interactions.)

Still: Some jobs do require on-site participation

Businesses were forced to accept telework due to the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean everyone in every company can work from home in the long term. Manufacturing jobs, field support, and many service jobs must be done where the work actually is. Employees who deal with intellectual property and personally identifiable information may need to schedule their work so they address sensitive data on their few days in the office.

And there are other factors. This includes choosing which job functions should return to work first.

“Only the data critical roles should return back to corporate premises first, due to security concerns,” says Raam. “Others can stay back and facilitate remote work.” The critical resources can work in shifts assuring there are limited people inside a defined area.

In many cases, the end result is likely to be a mix of in-office workers and people continuing to work from their couches.

Ready or not, you have to change operations to deal with employees who will work at home permanently. Your management, HR, and IT systems need to adjust to a higher percentage of full-time telecommuters, for whom working from home is a better option. It’s your job to find a way to make that work.

That has a significant impact on office IT systems. For example, redefined work spaces mean that workstation locations will change, which affects how office computers connect to the network even if everything is wireless.

Likewise, the business needs to bring communication and security requirements for remote workers up to corporate standards. This may mean providing dedicated lines for employees who don’t have home internet service. Or the company may need to pay for a level of service beyond what the employee might otherwise need. Or a better chair.

Once you admit that the work-at-home phase isn’t temporary, the company may need to provide computers and software if employees are currently using personal computers or laptops. One reason is physical security. When employees use their own computers for work, it’s hard to prevent them from using the same devices for everything from their family’s homework to grocery shopping. The business computer needs client security and communications security products, such as corporate-grade VPNs, firewalls, or network security equipment.

Split culture

Finally, there’s the question about how corporate culture affects workers when they’re at home. Office politics will change, if only because it’s hard to get people involved in back-stabbing when their backs are back at home. “The reality is that there’s still a culture,” Riegelhuth says. “In my experience, the culture evolves.”

In many cases, some parts of the corporate culture, notably office politics, are diminished, which helps productivity. In others, such as the informal back channels that help decision making, the impact on the culture may be problematic. But Riegelhuth notes that there are ways to keep back channels and brain storming alive.

“We have a vision, we have a purpose and we have our values. We have a weekly team meeting where everybody comes on to Zoom,” Riegelhuth says. “We get an hour of face time every week.”

“One of the advantages that we’ve seen is looking at our health and wellbeing,” Riegelhuth adds. “Taking sick days used to be frowned on. It used to be a badge of honor not to take sick days.” Now, she says, the company culture has changed to make health and wellbeing important parts of her company’s culture.

There’s a general agreement among both managers and experts that remote working is here to stay. While some employees will always need to be in the building, most won’t. And in many cases, the company will organize itself so that it functions solely online. Some employees need to come to the office occasionally, some on a regular basis and a few most of the time.

But for office workers, the daily 9 – 5 in the building is a thing of the past. It may take some organizations a while to figure that out, but home will be where the heart, and the job, is.

While you’re making changes, contemplate the who-does-what questions. For example, have you considered creating a Chief Quality Officer? Our white paper goes into the details.

Wayne Rash

by Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is based in Washington and has been writing about science and technology for nearly 40 years. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and a columnist for eWEEK. He is a frequent speaker on technology and has been a guest on NPR, NBC, PBS, CNN and Fox News.

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