With nearly half of the world’s population asked or ordered to stay at home by their governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19, working from home has become the new normal for many. Eventually, however, most people will return to their on-site workplace. But what might that workplace look like, upon their return?
Early observations from China where businesses are starting to reopen, provide some insights. Companies that reopen are required to have “epidemic control” plans, inspect employees for signs of disease, and keep workplaces disinfected. It’s likely that the rest of the world will follow China’s lead in reopening businesses, under strict protocols.
The good news is that upon an eventual return to the workplace, most workers will now have practiced operating in pandemic preparedness environments. According to a survey undertaken throughout March 2020, close to 70% of responding companies acknowledge having a business continuity or pandemic preparedness plan in place. During the past several weeks, many European-based companies implemented such plans in the form of restricted travel, hygiene programs and temperature checks, split workforce operations and flexibility for remote work.
But some workers haven’t left the workplace for the home office, and it’s starting to be a cause for concern. Non-healthcare employees who continue to work on-site amidst COVID-19 describe how they are struggling to apply social distancing measures within the workplace. They’re calling for better workplace social-distancing guidelines. What does it mean to stay more than 2m (6ft) apart from colleagues and customers? How exactly does one “limit social interaction within a shared space”? As Asit Raja, a pharmacist in the UK recounted to the BBC, “I’m trying to keep to social distancing as much as possible, but it just doesn’t work. If someone’s elderly and they can’t reach, you have to come close to them.”
These doubts should not be shouldered by those working on the frontlines alone. Workplaces need to be better prepared. It may be in the interests of a minority for now but the workplaces that the majority of people will return to will likely operate in a radically new environment, emphasizing low contact. To ensure that social distancing within the workplace is adhered to, organizations will need to do some serious work to engage employees across all different functions and levels.
It starts from fundamentally re-imagining on-site workplace interactions. With social distancing measures likely to be in place for the foreseeable future, new issues will arise in the middle ground between remote and on-site working. How can workers grapple with being so close to their colleagues, and yet so far? How can organisations build a sense of community in such situations? And as supermarket and pharmacy workers are currently discovering, customer service expectations will need to evolve to respect the frontline workers’ concerns of being infected. It’s a re-imagination effort that involves everybody.
Leveraging technology has been an obvious solution in the short-term. And of course, it has some mileage within the office space too. Leveraging digital technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to imitate existing interactions such as meetings and presentations will continue as quick wins.
But humans are inherently social beings, and there were reasons why companies such as Yahoo, IBM and Aetna experimented with remote working then called their employees back to the office. Remote communications and the sense of community building are just not one and the same things, however much we use the word “community” in virtual contexts. If technology becomes the solution to the problem, “the tech needs to kind of disappear so that you believe that you are in the room” explains Professor Thalia Wheatley, in a recent Times article.
In the medium- to long-term, organizations may consider leveraging technologies that simulate physical interactions in more advanced ways. The use of a telepresence robot, the “Shelbot,” in a 2010 episode of The Big Bang Theory seemed humorous and far-fetched at the time, but eerily prescient in the current climate. Hoping to avoid exposure to germs and potential accidents outside, the character of Sheldon Cooper operates his “Shelbot,” composed of a mobile webcam and a flat panel display, to stream himself in real-time from the safety of his bedroom. The possibilities that come with using telepresence robots, virtual reality, augmented reality, and other such technologies are vast, if used in the right way.