TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with David Sapin, chief revenue and risk officer for PwC Digital Products, about the future of office work. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Karen Roby: We’re talking about getting people back into the office, David, and what’s that going to take. What’s it going to look like, the office of the future. I mean, no doubt things have changed and will continue to and will never go back to what was 100% normal. Now that we’re a year into this, how do you feel like companies are doing, and are they moving people back in at a pretty decent rate in your opinion?

David Sapin: Yeah. Karen, I mean, it’s a good question. We’re excited that we’re beginning to see offices beginning to reopen, but what I’m seeing is a very cautious move toward reopening. When we think about this a year ago, you remember back last April, we all thought we would be back in the office last June and then it continued to evolve. And then I think we saw a lot of excitement in December when there was the announcement of the vaccine is coming, and I think people got excited. “Hey, we’re going to have vaccination. This is going to get done quickly. We’re going to get everybody back in the office.”

SEE: Working from home: The future of business is remote (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

I think now companies are beginning to think about, they’re slowing down a little bit. They’re realizing that vaccination is not the complete answer. And so they’re really thinking about what do we need, some of the technology that we’ve put in place for those companies that have come back into the office? How much of that really do we need to keep? How much of that becomes business as usual? I think we’re actually seeing the right approach right now which is a measured, thoughtful approach on when they’re going to get people back into the office and get back in the office when they could feel safe being in the office.

Karen Roby: When we talk about the technology that’s now available and you know, some companies, as we know, that were much further along in their digital transformation, moving employees to remote setup was not as big of a deal as it was for some others. So when we talk about the technology that’s needed that will be in place forever now to help keep people safe, what are we talking about there?

David Sapin: I think at PwC, we’re very fortunate. I think we were one of the ones that, like you said, we were ahead of the game from a digital transformation perspective, which helped ease us, also, it’s just the nature of our business. But I think what we’ve seen this year is we’ve seen a lot of acceleration of technologies across the board, whether it’s digital upskilling, leveraged technology to upskill people, whether it’s finding new automations to do things more efficiently or do things out of the office. And then there’s the area that I’ve been focused on over the past year now, which is how do you leverage technology to create a safer atmosphere in the office? How do you leverage things like contact tracing using various technology in terms of allowing people into the office so that you can feel comfortable that either they’ve been vaccinated, that they’ve been tested, whatever it may be, but I think we’re going to see a lot more technology being used in those settings as sort of business as usual before.

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Karen Roby: Let’s touch on one of the programs that you guys are using here with companies and implementing is the Check-In. Talk about that a little bit. Is this user-friendly? We’re talking about all kinds of industries. Everybody needs to get people back into work. And again, some are more familiar with technology than others.

David Sapin: I think it’s a good point. In this setting I think there’s also some fear with using technology in this sort of setting. Like a year ago we were faced with, like a lot of big companies, we were faced with a COVID positive, and we had a very manual process to determine how many people we needed to get out of the office. I think we ended up sending home 2,000 people in one of our offices and two days after we were completely shut down so it wasn’t relevant.

But now when you think about companies moving back into the office, I think part of our tool, the Check-In tool that you mentioned has a contact-tracing component, which allows companies to, if they have a situation where they have a COVID positive in the company, they can get everybody out has been in contact with that individual, then triage them and then figure out how to get them back in. Number one it’s very quick and it’s very precise. So, it’s a way of thinking about leveraging technology really to help companies operate more efficiently in this new era, in this COVID era. I think that’s sort of one step with the process.

Karen Roby: In terms of privacy and some people, a lot of people feel like, “Oh gosh, this is so much in my personal business.” Do you guys hear much pushback? Concerns from companies? I mean, anytime you talk about contact tracing or all of that, I mean, it sometimes seems a little heavy to people, a little intrusive.

David Sapin: Karen, when we first started having these conversations back in, whenever it was, April, May, last year, it did. It was very concerning for people, the privacy aspect. We built our solution really thinking about privacy. So two things. There’s a lot of talk about contact tracing apps. When you think about contact tracing, and you think about societal contact tracing, like everybody walking around a couple of things we did with ours, it only works when you’re inside the office. So we geo-fence the offices. When you’re in the office, there’s going to be a tracing, not tracking, but a tracing. So it would identify if you and I came near to one another, but it wouldn’t say where we were or when we were. Privacy was a very, very big deal. We spent a lot of time with our clients helping them think about how do you communicate to your people that if they’re going to come back into the office, that contact tracing is going to be important?

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

And frankly, they are going to have to give up some of the privacy rights to come into a safe work environment, but do it in a way where there’s trust with the employees. And I think that’s been a critical thing. And I think that’s actually a key role that employers are going to play going forward, which is that there’s a trusted relationship between employers and employees. And I think when the employees are bringing that solution to them, I think the employees are going to be more willing to use that. I think we’ve seen that we had a survey where you still only have, it’s probably less than 50% people who are comfortable with contact tracing as a solution, but back in May of last year, I think the number was 20%. So, I think there’s more acceptance with all this stuff. With PPE, with contact tracing. If you’re going to take away some of my privacy rights, let’s do it in the right way. But I’m happy. I’m willing to give that up if it means I’m going to be in a safer work environment.

Karen Roby: Most certainly. I think people have come a long way from when this just started last March, just understanding that as a society that’s just part of what we have to do to keep each other safe.

David Sapin: We’ve changed. I mean look, masks had become a fashion statement now, right? Like who would have thought about that a year ago? I think when you talk about technology and the workplace, we’re going to see more of this, right? In terms of understanding how people congregate, because I mean, unfortunately like we’re excited that the vaccinations are happening and that people are getting back to the office. But I think what we’ve been hearing in the last two months is concern about the next one. Is this going to be around for like a long time? Like, how are we going to build this into our business as usual? How are we going to build this into our disaster recovery?

So, it’s going to be different. And I think companies that are embracing technology in a smart way and in a trusted way can really have a big impact with their employees.

Karen Roby: Yeah, and just to hear you say that building that into future plans with disaster recovery, I mean, this is just another piece now that has to be included. And when someone asks you, “Well, what does the future look like for the office? Or how different is it going to be?” I mean, that’s just another part.

David Sapin: I was using the analogy recently, like sadly after 9/11, right? I used to run to the airport and you’d sort of pick your flight and you’d jump on it. You didn’t really worry about it. We all understand now that it’s very different when you go to the airport and the final experience, but it’s become business as usual when you travel now. And I think it’s going to be the same thing with the office. There are things that today are going to be odd when we come back to the office, but in the future, I think they’re going to be accepted and once we get it done the right way, I think it can really make for a more efficient, a safer work environment.

I think really seeing companies embrace technology the right way, just like you’ve seen at the airports and the better the technology the better the experience. I think that’s going to be the same thing for both employees coming into a building and then also customers, clients, etc., Coming into a workplace.

Karen Roby: That’s a great way to think of it actually. And, just like anything, I guess, you get used to it, and then you don’t even think twice about it anymore. Right? When we take our shoes off at the airport, but who would have thought we would have had to do that at one point? You know? Such a foreign concept.

David Sapin: It is, it is. But you know, like I said, it’s the experience and I think we’ll get there and we’ll get used to it. And I think there’s a balance of sort of the experience with the things that have to get done.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with David Sapin, chief revenue and risk officer for PwC Digital Products, about the future of office work.
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