Chris Thomas investigates how businesses should innovate to solve problems caused by social distancing restrictions, and how the future workplace will need to adapt to staff that have had a taste of freedom
The events of last year brought with it a rapid change in our working practices. Almost globally, businesses and individuals were expected to instantly change the behaviour that they had been used to for a long time, in some cases their entire working life.
In the simplest of examples, it might have been having to wear a mask or face covering while carrying out their usual duties on the shop floor. In more complicated scenarios it might have been working remotely, from the dining room table, trying to design the rear wing of a formula one car while the kids are complaining that quadratic equations are boring, and that they will not need them for their job as a YouTube gamer.
So, while we did not have much warning or time to prepare for what happened, we do have the opportunity to develop our plans for the future. A future that could take several different paths. We do not know if these lockdowns will continue long term, and with variants of the virus now developing this is a real possibility, in the same way we do not know if this will all be over by June and we’ll be back to working in our open plan offices and going to the pub after work on a Friday.
Preparing a business continuity plan
So, what should businesses do to prepare for a future we do not know about? As with any kind of risk analysis, we need to consider the worst-case scenario and work our way back from there to what is likely, and what is best case. It is part of preparing a good disaster recovery and business continuity plan.
We know that viruses spread through close contact, and that maintaining distance is a key element in stopping the transfer of them. Businesses should be considering what technology can do to assist the maintenance of social distancing. The most obvious one being remote or home working. If the initial lockdowns taught us one thing, it is this: if there is enough will to get work done, the tools are available to do it.
Cloud computing facilities such as Office 365 and Google Workspace, hosted VoIP systems allowing corporate telephony from any device, and video conferencing utilities such as Teams and Zoom all offer the ability to work from anywhere that has a decent internet connection. All of those should have been considered for a business continuity plan anyway, even before there was a pandemic, and can have long term benefits for the business and its employees.
One example of where technology can really help keep people distanced is the use of tracking devices and occupancy sensors. The Internet of Things (commonly abbreviated as IoT) is a phrase most people are aware of. In the domestic world it consists of Wi-Fi connected lighting systems, smart thermostats, and motorised blinds. In the business environment it is about analytics, data, and compliance. Simple sensors installed into a commercial property can identify high traffic areas, highlighting the need for things like a one-way system to stop people passing each other in a confined environment. Desk occupancy sensors can identify a desk or cubicle that has been recently used, flagging it so that it can be sanitised before the next user, or quarantined before it is used again. This is particularly useful if you’re adopting a more flexible working environment and have converted permanent desks into hot desks.
Tracking and tracing applications can offer far reaching benefits for large organisations. Smart wearables, which can be no different to the usual access cards or fobs used for door entry, can log and analyse staff proximity so that in the event of an infected member of staff it’s easy to trace those who may have come into contact and put quarantine or testing measures in place. Beyond Covid-19 the technology can ensure that certain functions are present in the right areas.
By tagging certain users with flags such as ‘First Aider’ or ‘Fire Marshall’ you can ensure that you have the right people in the right parts of your building at the right times. In most cases, anonymity is built in so that data is protected, and personally identifiable information can only be accessed in the event of a trigger and only by authorised users.
Finally, we need to address the cultural changes that have happened in the workplace. In the mid part of 2020, there was a huge rush to get people out of offices and working from home. The technology was already there and readily available, even if it was adopted in a rush, and it’s this technology that enabled many businesses and individuals to carry on working.
There have been various reports and surveys by many different organisations around how employers and employees feel about returning to the office environment. PwC conducted analysis of 133 executives and 1,200 employees in the US during November and December 2020 which reflected a significant shift in thoughts on whether remote working was successful, and that a hybrid home working/office environment would be more likely in the long term than a wholly office-based structure.
My own basic findings are that people genuinely feel more productive working from home. The stresses of the office commute have been removed entirely, and those valuable minutes and hours gained at the start and end of each working day improve home life significantly. No more packed commuter trains, no more congested roads. People are resting more, are able to enjoy their home life more and are there for those significant moments such as waving the kids off to school in the morning.
There is a financial implication to all of this of course. Working from home carries additional ongoing cost in the form of heating/cooling and power consumption. A lot of countries allow some of this to be claimed back in the form of tax relief, and of course the money saved in travel costs will almost certainly cover any extra on the electricity bill.
Now that employees have had a taste of these freedoms it will be difficult to bring them back into the office environment, so businesses should be mindful of this when they choose to open their premises again. Enforcing a mass return to the office is likely to make people feel uneasy as they have become so used to being separated from others, causing stress levels to run higher than normal and tensions to rise. In this era of mental health and wellbeing awareness, it is advisable to bear this in mind.
Conversely, there are a number of people who still thrive in a busy office environment and we need to consider their needs too. That is why I think the future will be largely based around flexible working and will remain that way after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed. The idea of a permanent fixed desk for every employee will diminish, being replaced with hotdesking environments in company owned buildings, or possibly co-working spaces and shared office environments such as those offered by companies like Regus.
That considers those individuals who are already in employment, so what about those applying for new positions? With remote working more accessible, more used, and more trusted than ever before, I think it is going to be very high on the list of any candidate’s expectations, if it has not already been considered and published in the job spec. By prohibiting remote/home and flexible working, you could be missing out on the best talent.
Chris Thomas is the founder and director of Litenet Ltd, a UK based telecoms and business solutions consultancy. Chris has been in the telecoms/IT industry for over 25 years, held senior positions within reseller organisations and has worked with global enterprises and government bodies on their telecoms projects.