How to plan for a post-pandemic return to work, according to industry experts

The announcement of a potential COVID-19 vaccine brings hope for a return to normalcy in the workplace. Learn from some industry experts how to properly set the stage.

keyboard mask and hand sanitizer

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My workplace, where I am employed as a systems administrator, has been effectively shuttered for over eight months now. While access is permitted, it must be approved in advance by management and travel to certain states results in a mandatory two-week quarantine from the office.

SEE: The new normal: What work will look like post-pandemic  (TechRepublic Premium)

It's eerie to visit the darkened office space and see the empty cubicles and meeting rooms, which once teemed with human activity. This seems to be the new normal, but in the wake of a potential coronavirus vaccine announcement companies should start thinking about how to pave the way for a gradual post-pandemic return to work.

I spoke about the concept with Craig Williams, CIO of Ciena, a network solutions provider; John Beattie, principal consultant at Sungard AS, an IT production and recovery services provider; and Vikas Sethi, practice director at TCS, a digital software and solutions provider.

Scott Matteson: How should companies proceed in safely re-populating the workplace?

Craig Williams: To maximize safety during the office return, companies should stagger teams coming back by prioritizing who would benefit the most from being in the office. It's likely that the earlier employees who return to the office will be the roles that require more seamless and accessible communication with their customers or products. The return will also require leaders to listen to the workforce to understand what they feel comfortable with so organizations can help facilitate a smooth and safe transition. Many employees are now juggling other priorities, such as caring for elderly family members or children. These will need to be considered when mapping out the office return and [determining] who receives priority.

John Beattie: Perform a deep clean of workspaces and test equipment that may have been idle for quite some time, such as printers, electrical generators, badge scanners, etc.

Additionally, many employees will have concerns about returning to the workplace, so business leaders must consider implementing policies that will help minimize exposure for employees and ease their concerns. 

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Some actions to take: 

  • Consider short- and long-term social distancing and density reduction in the office.
  • Implement limitations on non-essential common areas and equipment, such as break rooms or office fitness centers.
  • Set up guidelines for conference room usage, and reduce the number of chairs to keep safe distances between employees.
  • Promote the use of virtual meetings even after employees return to the office.
  • Consider extending remote work for any employees who can perform their jobs remotely, and sequence the return of employees.

Overall, by erring on the side of caution and planning ahead, companies can safely repopulate the workplace with minimal disruption to business.

Scott Matteson: What sort of hierarchy involving employee categorization (e.g. who is more needed on-site than off-site) should apply? 

John Beattie: The urgency should be first for those workers who must be in the workplace to perform their jobs in support of work being done by the people who are working remotely. For example, the mailroom should re-open early on; the reception area, not so much. And, it's crucial to make people feel comfortable as they return, so it's important to phase in from the top down, with management returning in the first wave. Addressing business cycles is also a factor, so don't bring back the accountants in the middle of a quarterly financial close, for example. Additionally, consider extending remote work for IT help desk personnel to prevent the possibility of other staff members confronting them with IT issues face-to-face at their desks.

Vikas Sethi: Like the virus itself, there are fundamentally new elements of risk from COVID-19 that can spell doom for a business. The pandemic made traditional approaches to business continuity obsolete overnight. It redefined what enterprise risk is all about. To safely reopen the workplace, companies need to meet three goals: Protect employees and customers, comply with evolving government regulations, and make operations more resilient despite the ongoing disruption. Whether you're a bank or a retailer, firms in every industry are viewing enterprise risk more broadly. It now includes workplace safety, risk prediction, regulatory and government compliance, business operations, supply chain, inventory, finance, and even aspects of the customer experience. By becoming more resilient, they'll be in better shape to handle the next unforeseen disaster—whatever it may be.

Scott Matteson: What safeguards/pitfalls are involved?

John Beattie: The biggest concern is the possibility of a COVID-19 wave two outbreak. For a reasonable time period, around one month or so, it's vital to do what's possible to maintain social distancing in the workplace as well minimize traffic in common areas, such as break rooms. This could be done by closing conference rooms or removing half the chairs in each.

Vikas Sethi: To reopen the workplace, it is paramount for companies to use hard data to determine which employees can safely come into the office and which should work remotely for the health and safety of others. This puts the onus on businesses to continuously monitor the level of workplace infection risk and take immediate action. To enforce social distancing, video and contact path tracing analytics can enable organizations to figure out an optimal workplace occupancy plan as well as identify alternate ways to move about to avoid congregating. If an employee is infected, enterprises can conduct contact tracing using proximity data from Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as employee mobile devices or badge scanners coupled with temperature scans to identify at-risk individuals.

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

Since dealing with the pandemic is new territory for every business, one of the pitfalls of reopening is following strict—and constantly changing—policies and procedures. Recording regulatory compliance and reporting to oversight bodies is also a challenge, especially for sectors not used to so many regulations. With the amount of new variables to contend with, business leaders are challenged to get a big-picture view of how the pandemic is affecting their business, beyond obvious metrics. This requires companies to assess risk at each worksite separately to gain an understanding of infections as well as their impact on the workforce impact and customer relationships. Using analytics, enterprises can run what-if analyses to predict risk and better plan ahead.

Scott Matteson: What sort of hierarchy involving employee categorization (e.g. who is more needed on site than off site) should apply? 

Vikas Sethi: Instead of making a list of which employees should work on-site based on job function or title, enterprises should take a risk-based approach to these decisions. That starts with a data-driven understanding of what factors can make their business more resilient. Fortunately, most companies today have an enormous amount and variety of data sources to tap into to do just that. Adaptive risk mitigation models powered by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and open data can give them a granular understanding of which employees, departments, facilities, and even suppliers need to be in the office to maintain productivity.

Like other companies, COVID-19 forced employees at TCS to work from home. We deployed a Secure Borderless Workspaces model that enabled more than 443,000 of our associates in 46 countries to work remotely in a few weeks. When lockdown restrictions eased, we rolled out an AI solution called IUX for Workplace Resilience that lets TCS site administrators (chief risk compliance officer, delivery center heads) monitor the daily risk profile and risk prediction for over 180,000 employees in India on a rolling seven-, 14- and 21-day basis. Based on daily risk scores, the administrators can decide which employees can be safely allowed to return to work, if required. We're now deploying the solution in North America.

By 2025, we expect that only 25% of TCS employees will work out of an office at any given time. 

Scott Matteson: What IT considerations should be taken into account?

Craig Williams: Personally, I think we'll see organizations make more tech investments this year than in the last five or 10 years, and it's crucial that they look at the benefits these technologies will provide in the long-term. It should be a given that companies have a cloud and collaboration strategy but if not, IT leaders need to act quickly to get them in order. 

Some of the new and future IT challenges we're thinking through right now have to do with product development: How to create an immersive experience for the engineering teams that used to work together in a room to innovate. We're also re-thinking the office standard—we went from 70 offices to about 7,000 home offices overnight, so we're looking at ways to better manage and support them. In addition, we're working toward a remote IT function by removing all logistical barriers to better support employees.

It's also imperative that employees see the IT team as easily approachable and accessible at this time. At Ciena, we don't have our Tech Bars for employees to go to anymore, so we are more actively engaged in outreach and discussion boards so employees can still find us and engage with us on a regular basis. We recently held a well-attended, company-wide all hands to simply open the discussion on our IT strategy while actively addressing questions and really listening to what our employees need in an open Q-and-A.

John Beattie: Business may have relaxed some cybersecurity controls or extended user permissions in the quick shift to large-scale remote work. It's important that businesses revert those changes to tighten security as employees begin to return to the office. Additionally, IT can expect another surge in help desk calls, as people and their equipment that was shipped home begins to return to the office.

Vikas Sethi: Reopening the workplace safely amid the pandemic requires enterprises to continuously access risk by capturing insights from a variety of enterprise data and IoT sources. This is more easily done using data analytics platforms based on open standards. The survival of many businesses during COVID-19 is a race against time. That makes open standards vital since they speed up deployment by facilitating faster integration with existing IT systems. With revenue shortfalls at so many enterprises, the software-as-a-service model is also attractive to businesses looking to reduce capital expenditures as they go about safely reopening the workplace. 

Scott Matteson: What should companies do to prepare for the next pandemic?

Craig Williams: The coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything we've seen before, and many of us faced a period of intense trial and error when it came to navigating this new reality. To adapt more quickly moving forward, leaders need to have the mindset that this will happen again. Experts predict that a second wave is imminent and, when combined with the upcoming flu season, may be worse than the first. The business community needs to consider the long-tail with new technology investments so they are prepared and ready. To see continued success requires a continuation of the same steadfast and focused mindset we've developed thus far.

John Beattie: Organizations that have comprehensive pandemic plans (not just workforce shortage plans) should re-imagine them in light of the lessons learned in the past several months, and include a segment for managing a potential second wave of the outbreak, as well as guidance for returning to the workplace. For the companies that do not have pandemic plans in place, they should create them in preparation for a potential second wave.

Vikas Sethi: The pandemic is acting as a catalyst for companies to become more resilient by investing in digital transformation. According to a TCS survey of large global firms on the business impact of COVID-19, two-thirds of executives said they are maintaining digital transformation budgets for their business functions during the pandemic. A quarter of them are actually increasing their digital transformation budgets by an average of 33%. Investing in an integrated analytics platform and business command center that helps enterprises coordinate and optimize their response to major disruptive events and address key safety and operational challenges is the need of the hour. This will make them better prepared for the next pandemic or other unplanned disruption.

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