Post-crisis, how will we return to the office safely?
April 6, 2020
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Author
Dave Farah

For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way our world operates. Whole sectors of the economy have been halted: restaurants and hotels shuttered or offering only takeout/delivery, brick and mortar stores struggling to stay open, airlines grounded country-wide, and corporate buildings left vacant by work-from-home policies. Cities have gone quiet, emissions have plummeted, and animal life has crept curiously back into lands that people have occupied for decades. 

This is what a pandemic demands.

In order to flatten the curve and assist in the global eradication of this infection, those who can have to stay home. Business-as-usual is, in fact, a threat to our society. 

But life must go on. Companies must continue operating. We can’t simply turn off the industrial valves of technology, healthcare, energy, education, and government. These industries can’t just take a gap year.

While many large corporations have adopted work-from-home policies, eventually people will come back to work. Based on conversations with Density customers, we’ve pulled together some emerging best practices on how to craft your return to work policy—or, as some companies put it, your “reboot” strategy.   

“When do we return? How do we return?”

Related Watching: Social Distancing & Real-Time Occupancy Data (recorded webinar)

Below are some ways Density customers will be putting their data to use as they develop their workplace reentry strategies:

1. Guide new policies with accurate data

What we found early in the COVID-19 crisis is that although many companies wanted employees to work from home, they only instituted “recommended” and “use your best judgement” policies. However, Density’s customers (and Density ourselves) found that most employees continued to show up to the office. The overall occupancy of our offices didn’t decrease as meaningfully as we had hoped. Because of this, many companies made their policies  mandatory. Result: the number of employees coming to work fell nearly to zero.

Total occupancy report for a Density customer in late February & March

Staying home was no longer an option, it became a rule.

Now, our customers are using occupancy data to monitor employee compliance with the new mandates. Aside from essential staff, no one is allowed to come into the office, and our Density data certainly reflects that change. Occupancy numbers fell off a cliff on March 12th. The corporate exodus was in full swing, and our clients will continue to track adherence to these policies in order to keep their teams healthy. Using this data, companies will be able to monitor and enact reentry programs in a safe and strategic way. 

2. Promote social distancing with occupancy limits

It will take time to bring employees back into the office, full time. By imposing limits on the total number of employees allowed in the office, or on individual floors, workplace managers can protect employees from potential contagious interactions. Using real-time occupancy data, companies can ensure that only so many people are populating specific sections of a floor, building, or campus. Over time, facilities teams can re-introduce more employees to the space and still keep tabs on where people are and how many people are there. This leads to a “phased approach,” which avoids overcrowding and mitigates concerns about potential transmission.

Customizable Occupancy Alerts through Density's Dashboard

3. Take a phased approach

Having everyone come back to the office on day one is not realistic. Your employees have gone through a lot and it would be foolhardy to ask them to return to the office as though nothing has happened. Your HR and operations teams have an opportunity to both safeguard their health and safety, as well as to instill confidence that it’s indeed safe to return to work. 

A phased approach can help. It also reduces the burden already levied upon facilities crews who are working overtime to keep up with deep cleaning schedules. Additionally, a phased approach reduces the risk of the worst case scenario in which a contagious employee returns to the office and passes the illness to others.

Reliable occupancy data will save companies time and money, and, ideally, assist in keeping people healthy.

With occupancy data, workplace teams can see exactly how the phases of a reentry program will change in the ensuing months. They can keep track of daily visits, team locations, occupied and/or vacant spaces, and pinpoint what areas of the offices need cleaning and what areas do not. By removing the guesswork, reliable occupancy data will save companies time and money, and, ideally, assist in keeping people healthy.

4. Staggered schedule

Another way companies are using occupancy data to navigate their return to the office is by staggering employee schedules. Employers are considering assigning team shifts and alternate work hours. Much like the phased approach, schedule staggering limits the number of people allowed in a space at any given time. If companies can identify how many people are in different areas of a building/floor, they can create time-based allotments for office visits. This would reduce the risk of transmission between employees simply because they would occupy the same space at different times.

This can also benefit employees who take public transportation to work. If someone who usually arrives at 9:00 in the morning can actually take a noon train, they’ll avoid rush hour busyness during their commute, thus reducing the number of people in transit, as well as the potential for contagious interaction. If companies apply a staggered schedule strategy, they will also be able to direct essential staff and cleaning crews to targeted areas based on who has been where according to the agenda.

5. Use-based cleaning

As a general rule, office space is cleaned on a schedule—and in many cases, the same number of staff hours are spent on a highly trafficked lobby as on conference rooms that have been used for a single meeting. A more cost effective and potentially safer approach is to focus cleaning effort according to how many people have used the space. Density data can help.

Dashboard report identifying which individual floors need cleaning

Density data may be especially helpful in places where people are congregating in larger groups, such as cafeterias. Some organizations with shared cafeterias or lunch rooms may consider implementing “assigned” lunch periods to allow for greater space and the opportunity to clean surfaces between visits. While it may feel like a callback to high-school, assigned lunch periods could be incredibly effective in mitigating the risk of potential transmission between employees. During any given period, only a certain number of employees would be allowed in the large gathering spaces, and those employees would be encouraged to maintain proper social distance therein.

Assigned lunch periods will offer facilities teams enough time to clean and sterilize popular gathering areas prior to the next wave of people coming in to eat. Occupancy data can provide the real-time, actionable insight necessary to implement use-based cleaning. If workplace teams know how many people are in a certain place and when, they can avoid wasting time cleaning areas that are not used. During a workplace reentry program, the timing and effectiveness of facility services will be crucial.

Employees will be returning to a changed environment.

Lastly, one of the most important parts of any company’s “reboot strategy” will be effective communication with employees. Because there is so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and its lasting impact on our culture, team leaders must loop employees into the process before, during, and after. Some companies may adopt more permanent work-from-home policies. Some companies have already reduced their workforces significantly. Depending on how this crisis has directly affected your company, the office experience will be different. Employees will be returning to a changed environment. Communication and clear direction will be integral to navigating this process smoothly.

HR and Workplace teams can’t physically be in every office, floor, and neighborhood simultaneously to monitor back-to-work programs. Managing the human behavior of thousands of individual employees at a time is an impossible task if you don’t have the proper systems in place. Facilities crews and workplace teams can’t feasibly stand in every room and manually count, inform, direct, communicate, and shepherd workforces back into the building. But with technologies like Density, they don’t have to.