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What’s Next? Returning to Work in 2020 and Beyond


Illustration showing concept of contact tracing
Image: Bobboz -
As the rush to enable work-from-home (WFH) subsides, IT, facilities, and HR professionals are now starting to think about the future; specifically, they’re questioning how they bring people back to the office safely.
Thirty-six percent of participants in Nemertes’ recent global “Visual Communications and Collaboration: 2020-21” research study say they plan to continue WFH as-is for the foreseeable future, and another 42% say they will probably continue supporting WFH, but haven’t yet formulated a strategy. Just 8% say they plan a full return to the office. Even among the 78% who will continue or are likely to continue with WFH, many say they will likely let workers return to the office if they so desire.
In a recent member survey, the Society of Human Resource Management found that over half (53%) of more than 1,000 respondents planned to have employees return to the office by the end of July, with 39% planning a phased-in approach. Obviously, these plans depend on local infection rates and trends, and are likely to change in states experiencing an increase in the spread of the virus.
Supporting a safe return to the office creates significant challenges. It seems obvious that the office people return to will not in any way resemble the workplace that existed prior to the pandemic. Rather, organizations are likely to adopt strategies to minimize office density and maximize spacing. This means giving workers the ability to WFH at least part of their week, based on preference and need.
To enable space management, as well as contact tracing should an infected employee be identified as having spent time in the office, IT, HR, and facilities organizations must come together to deliver:
  • Access controls to monitor how many people are in an office at any given time, and, potentially, to refuse entry when occupancy limits are reached
  • Notification systems that apprise employees of current office density and save them from commuting to an office that has already hit its occupancy threshold. These systems must also be able to inform employees when the company identifies that an infected person has been in the workplace (in accordance with privacy laws)
  • Reservation capabilities that ensure employees they can work from within an office location when necessary
  • Backup locations and plans should an infection outbreak require closing an office
  • Monitoring systems that track worker location, in real-time, to ensure proper spacing and provide alerts when people are clustered within an area
  • Tracking systems that allow companies to enable rapid contact tracing should an employee who has been inside of an office become infected (and that provide for an anonymous means of reporting infection to protect worker privacy)
  • Appropriate policies to ensure that workers understand what data about them is being tracked, again in line with contract rules and legal requirements
Additional requirements may include modifying security systems (e.g., facial recognition systems) to support the use of masks, and limiting access to meeting rooms to ensure spacing.
Already IT vendors are responding to some of these challenges. Cisco, for example, recently announced that its Webex Control Hub management platform will report on conference room utilization to allow customers to optimize cleaning schedules (in addition to enabling voice control of meeting systems to minimize touching of screens). Siemens and Salesforce announced a new partnership to enable touchless elevator and building entry, as well as capacity management (see related WorkSpace Connect article, “Software, Sensors Paired for Return-to-Office Enablement”).
Organizations should already have established “safe-work” teams consisting of HR, facilities, and IT personnel not only to formulate return-to-office plans, but also to engage with, and evaluate, rapidly emerging solutions aimed at minimizing return-to-office risk.