Over the last 2 weeks I have spoken to probably 50 business leaders and managers about their return-to-office readiness. It’s fair to say that there’s a wide range of responses.

At best, a small number of employers have adopted wide-ranging measures to protect their employees when they return to work. The measures include regular communications with home workers, mental health counselling for those that need it, adoption of standards and guidelines, thermal testing of all employees and visitors to the workplace, clear signage and physical barriers, desk booking software and re-configured office layout to encourage social distancing rules.

Whilst these measures are a good start and way ahead of the majority, they leave gaps in a company’s defence which potentially puts people at risk. 

However, at the other extreme, the overwhelming majority of companies that I’ve spoken to have a different approach.

Some are caught in the headlights and have no plan or strategy in place and don’t appear to recognise the potential impact of the challenge ahead. They appear to view the adoption of the return to work measures as a costly hindrance to their every-day operations.

One business owner I spoke to, who shall remain nameless, said that the “increased level of red tape and cost of getting people back to the office is a pain in the arse”. I’m not sure I’d agree.

Several companies I spoke to have made the decision not to return to a single corporate office or radically reduce occupancy levels and will maintain the home working regime for the foreseeable future.

A number of local authorities and educational establishments believe that 25% occupancy is the maximum that they can deliver within the next 6 – 12 months. Therefore 75% of their staff or building occupants will remain at home, or perhaps, no longer be employed by the organisation for an extended period of time.

In the main, it appears that many companies of all sizes are adopting the minimal recommended measures to comply with guidelines issued by Government and the relevant industry bodies. This may include clear communications and signage, physical barriers or taping off areas to encourage distancing and lots of hand sanitiser.

The basic ‘sanitiser and signage’ approach presents significant risks to employees. As such, employers need to carefully consider their responsibilities to their staff.

Whilst I do recognise that many companies are struggling financially, putting employee health and safety at risk in order to keep costs to a minimum could result in lives being lost.

There is a growing recognition that certain technologies can be part of the solution. For example, there appears to be a spike in demand for desk booking software. These tools give employees the facility to avoid booking adjacent desks and help workers to keep their distance. However, these tools don’t (yet) offer the ability to enforce cleaning regimes after each occupant vacates the desk or ensure adequate time gaps between bookings. They need to be considered as part of a more comprehensive solution.

Even the more sophisticated organisations that control building access and check the temperature of inbound staff and visitors on arrival are exposed once that individual walks beyond reception.

I’m aware of several businesses who have invested heavily in state of the art thermal testing equipment that they believe will re-assure employees as they enter the building and satisfy their return to work strategy. However, this approach does not allow the employer to track adherence to social distancing rules or identify hotspots where the office layout compromises distancing.

A more considered view

A very small number of senior executives I spoke with have a more considered, longer-term view. As with any crisis, smart business leaders look for the positives. I am only basing my conclusions on a very small cohort, but there appears to be a common theme among these forward-thinking businesses.

Typically, these executives were leaders of successful businesses with highly valued employees such as lawyers, accountants, consultants and architects. The corporate office represents the company values and usually located in a prestigious location, fitted to a high standard.

When questioned, the executives mentioned that the workplace is viewed as an asset to attract, retain and motivate their talented employees to produce superior results. These leaders also recognise the importance of investing in their staff, whether at home, in the office or when working remotely. They pay good salaries, offer an inspiring place to work, attract the best and the brightest and as a result, they outperform their peers.

Interestingly, these businesses are going “above and beyond” to protect their employees for the return to the office. Rather than adopting the minimum standards, they recognise the need to deliver comprehensive solutions such as 24×7 workplace monitoring (full disclosure: my company, Keystone, offers such a solution: https://keystone-wx.com/return-to-work-2/).

As a result they can demonstrate to their employees that they take safety seriously – as well as being able to maximise the effectiveness of their return to work strategy.

One senior executive of a large law firm told me:

“As a responsible employer, we need our employees to know that their health and safety is paramount. We will bounce back faster by investing in workplace monitoring”

Gaining a strategic advantage

The solution that many of these companies are increasingly adopting combines 24×7 real-time monitoring of the workspace using innovative IoT sensors with advanced data science powered by artificial neural networks. It’s surprisingly affordable, quick to implement and delivers unique benefits over the other measures outlined in this article.

This unique capability enables, for the first time, managers to configure the solution to meet their own post COVID workplace policies and guidelines, adapt the solution over time to reflect current guidelines and best practice, monitor over 74 data points (including occupancy, social distancing, air quality and environmental quality) and receive real-time ‘breach’ alerts and automated risk level updates.

By deploying the solution, forward-thinking companies can provide a safe and productive workplace for employees during the return to work, re-configure office layouts based on accurate occupancy and utilisation data, monitor workplace compliance to guidelines and standards 24×7, receive breach alerts (e.g. if employees breach the social distance rule for more than a pre-set period), log incidents and manage preventative tasks and report on the return to work program effectiveness.

An increasing number of employers are providing information to employees to evidence that the workplace is safe. With a workplace monitoring solution in place, employees can have 24×7 access to a simple dashboard of current KPIs and COVID status, giving them the re-assurances that employees need.

In the not too distant future, the more advanced workplace monitoring solutions will provide predictive capabilities which proactively alert office managers to future risks or potential breaches of policy or guidelines, with recommendations on avoidance strategies. So, for example, an office manager could be alerted to a potential breach at a specific location and time – allowing them time to address the issue.

With the right tools in place, executives can make more informed business decisions based on reliable and real-time data. These businesses can provide their highly valued staff with appropriate tools to bring their home office up to the same standards deployed within the corporate setting.

They can create strategic advantage by going way beyond providing a ‘safe office’, but can create ‘smart workspaces’ where staff wellbeing and productivity thrives and employees enjoy performing better. These visionary employers can also use technology to drive down costs, such as reconfiguring office layout to reduce rental costs and saving on energy consumption through smart meters and other measures.

Do the right thing

Based on my small sample of calls with senior execs, it’s impossible to fully assess the implications of whichever route these businesses chose to go.

I sincerely hope that the ‘sanitiser and signage’ approach works, and we don’t see COVID2.0 re-infect the workplace and cause more damage. I also fully recognise the fine balance many organisations have to make between cost and benefit of the multitude of potential return to work solutions available.

We will have to wait and see if those small number of visionary leaders who are investing in 24×7 workplace monitoring solutions gain the catapult effect and come out of this crisis in better shape than their competitors.

There are no simple answers. Good luck.

If you are looking for a workplace monitoring solution alongside the multitude of other measures available, please take a look at https://keystone-wx.com/return-to-work-2/.