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Returning to Offices in the Next Normal

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Returning to Offices in the Next Normal

All 50 states, and many of their businesses, are finally reopening—or trying valiantly to do so. Whether it’s the local retailer, restaurant or small services business, everyone is raring to go back to work. Perhaps it’s because summer is almost here, or just three months of being cooped up, but the desire to reopen is strong. In this vein, many organizations are in various stages of planning and thinking about how to safely reopen their facilities and bring some, likely not all, workers back to the office. So, let’s explore the necessary topics to think about before flinging open those office doors. It’s not about just returning, but about returning and reimagining the environment.

Employee pre-check. One of the first steps organizations can take is to enable employees to conduct a self-check before they arrive at the office. The intent of a pre-check is to prevent those who are symptomatic from arriving at work and potentially infecting others. It also gives employees a regular opportunity to assess their own “fitness” to return to the office. This self-check should become a part of a daily routine, much like any of the other morning rituals people perform.

The self-check could include elements such as a temperature check and a self-assessment questionnaire designed to ensure the individual is well-suited to come into the office for the day. A set of guidelines for employees might be part of it as well. There are examples available in the market today, like this one from the Mayo Clinic. After an employee “passes” their self-pre-check, then they should prepare to return to the office. However, if an employee fails, then, given the Remote By Design™ world we’ve inhabited the past three months, it’s probable that their organization will allow the employee to continue being remotely productive.

A note about personal choice: Some individuals might pass the self-assessment and still not feel comfortable returning to the office. Every organization will likely handle this situation differently. However, most—if not all—will accommodate, within reason, an employee’s desire to continue working remotely until there is increasing confidence in a return to the office. After all, in this newly Remote By Design world, nearly every organization will operate in some “hybrid” model—a combination of remote and onsite workforce—for the foreseeable future

Access control. At the office, probably at the front or at multiple entrances, one will likely find new protocols for access to the building. These new standard operating procedures might include things like on-site temperature checks and other screening measures. EPAM just published a post on an entry system called Screen Door that could enable organizations to validate the temperature of individuals entering a facility.

Another element of these new protocols will surely include a requirement that entrants use proper PPE equipment: Masks, gloves, and so on. If individuals don’t have such equipment, or they forget theirs, organizations will either provide these materials or request employees to return after such equipment has been procured.

Whatever your facility access plan ultimately is, limiting exposure to potential COVID-19-carriers is the first and most important element to ensuring safe corporate office operations. 

Employee interactions. When reopening offices, consider the policies and procedures concerning employee interactions. These types of interactions can encompass any type of contact between employees, which as Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, notes, will require social distancing at work.

Employees will need to ensure that they maintain safe distances when congregating, whether it’s for work events, meetings or one-on-one discussions. Sometimes this will require a new approach to social interactions at work. Gone are the days when colleagues shake hands or hug platonically when meeting. Instead, a low-touch model of elbow bumps, or a non-touch model of bowing or hands pressed together in a “namaste,” could become the next normal.

One essential component of every organization and their office restart will require some form of contact tracing. In order to protect themselves and their employees, companies must ensure that they can promptly respond, report and notify other employees to any employee testing positive for COVID-19. They’ll need to quickly and clearly communicate the circumstances around an employee’s positive test to all who might have interacted with this person. And it’s extremely important that they do so while also protecting the rights and identity of the individual in question and complying with regulatory requirements. 

Having a solid approach and established guidelines for employee interactions will be a critical part of any reopening efforts.

Communal spaces. Don’t forget about communal office spaces! These might include cafeterias, kitchens or conference rooms. Offices may need to completely rethink how these spaces should be structured and used. Some organizations may not have the budget or the appetite to make wholesale changes to their facilities. If that’s the case, then they’ll need to determine how to make short-term and low-cost changes to their facilities to accommodate office personnel needs (as covered in the final section of this post). Another voice for guidance on how to manage communal spaces, especially as it relates to buildings and commercial offices, can come from governmental organizations. Consider, for instance, this bulletin from the State of New York.

A final, critical component of communal office space management: Establish a cleaning regimen and process and share this schedule along with its current status to all employees. 

Facilities and schedules. Organizations will need to rethink their overall approach to their facilities and their office setting in order to ensure a safe restart. The end-to-end view of the office setting must include entrances and exits and everything in between—such as, yes, facility sanitation. This is especially important with regards to high-touch places like lavatories, doors, stairs, elevators, seats, tables and counters.

The post-COVID-19 era will likely see an end to free snacks and other office goodies, which had been a mainstay of Silicon Valley. There are a number of factors, including cost, for why endless perks might perish. In today’s world, it has more do with the inability to provide these benefits safely than a lack of desire to do so. Of course, companies should always seek and adopt guidance from organizations like the CDC with regards to how best to manage their facilities in preparation for a return to the office. 

Now, wouldn’t it be great to have all of the things outlined above integrated into a single application? Well you’re in luck—back in April, EPAM launched the open source (read: free!) application framework called COVID Resistance. This framework was developed to enable organizations to integrate, easily and seamlessly, all the key aspects of a return to office listed in this post, and their larger corporate infrastructure and ecosystem in one convenient place. COVID Resistance was built with the intent to help everyone adapt to the next normal more quickly. Go check it out.  


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