Many employees have been catapulted into the use of videoconferencing and cloud-enabled file-sharing to replace physical meetings and traditional ways of working. These have often proved efficient and productive, enabling these technologies to become embedded in workplace processes so that some employees are now empowered to work remotely for the longer term.
Various contact-tracing technologies — such as Bluetooth-enabled wristbands and smartphone apps, like MIT’s COVID Safe Paths — are already being used by some governments and companies to help safeguard health in the event of a confirmed infection. Trust that the use of such data is for personal protection only — and not for wider surveillance — is central to widescale adoption and compliance. Organizations will need to safeguard data to comply with local regulations.
“Employers can’t leave it to governments or big tech alone to solve the challenges arising from the pandemic,” says Jeff Saviano, EY Global Tax Innovation Leader. “These problems can only be solved through smart collaborations amongst various stakeholders across the public and private sectors, and civil society.”
Companies that have reopened are considering how to replace high-touch items such as trash cans, or use technology to mitigate risk to keep employees safe and work environments clean. And more advanced technologies are being piloted, from thermal imaging cameras to voice-activated controls for elevators and doors. At Ford’s plant in Plymouth, Michigan, for example, workers are testing a smartwatch that uses Bluetooth shortwave technology to detect proximity between workers and vibrates to alert supervisors.3
In addition, companies are adopting AI and data analysis to build scenarios, test hypotheses and envision the what-if circumstances that will form the basis of emergency plans that can be implemented immediately should a localized outbreak occur. In short: model, iterate and pivot.
Every business reopening after lockdown has to reconfigure workspaces to maintain social distancing. Measures include orienting employees back-to-back or side-by-side, rather than face-to-face; spacing employees farther apart on assembly lines; designated seating in offices rather than “hot desking”; limited elevator use; installing signage to help maintain distance at communal facilities such as photocopiers, coffee points and bathrooms; and temporarily closing socializing hubs such as canteens and informal breakout areas.
Mitigating risk on high-traffic and high-touch surfaces can also be achieved without technology. An Australian technology company has replaced door handles with foot handles made from wall brackets to avoid doors being touched by its employees, for example.4 These modifications are only short-term adjustments for the sweeping changes to physical space that will come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies will re-evaluate their real estate footprints and physical space needs, including who needs to be in an office location and for what percentage of the working week. And those employees who remain working in company offices will have more space. While the average real estate space per employee has been in decline since the 2008 financial crash,5 the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to reverse this trend. For those employees who return to the office, social distancing guidelines signal the end of open office floor plans.
Mark Grinis, EY Global Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Leader, summarizes what to expect: “The future of real estate is forever altered after the COVID-19 crisis. Our experiences from adopting more virtual lifestyles has changed the perception of what’s possible which, in turn, will challenge the role of the physical environment. There is both an urgent need for immediate adjustment of physical space to protect health and safety in the return to work, while planning for longer-term adjustments to how people prefer to work, shop, learn and be entertained.”
Gear 1 provides immediate, actionable steps to put people at the center of the physical return to work. Here are some questions to help push your preparations forward.