With office reopening plans accelerating, get ready for a new set of challenges that IT leaders must help mitigate. There might be some issues you haven't thought about.
Many organizations and leaders I've been speaking with have shifted their return-to-office plans from non-committal statements like "reevaluating our position in six months," to putting firm dates on the calendar and creating structured plans. Just as IT leaders were called on in the early days of the pandemic to facilitate the mass migration from in-person to virtual work, so too will we be tapped to help facilitate a transition to some form of hybrid model.
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Some technology leaders have mistakenly assumed they're "all good," having implemented one of those silly apps that asks if you have a fever or cough each morning. At this point, your workforce likely understands not to show up to the office with a raging fever, but do they understand whether there are different policies if they've had a vaccine? Does your organization understand the fraught landscape of complying with health privacy laws? Does your staff know where to sit and which conference rooms are available and at what capacity?
The notion of a new normal has become so trite as to be obnoxious. However, early indicators demonstrate that simple assumptions about when, where and who comes into work must change. For example, if you've worked in a large office tower in a major city, you've likely experienced elevator rush hour, with dozens of people crammed into a small lobby, patiently waiting their turn to pack themselves into a 6-feet-by-10-feet space like human sardines. Whether mandated or not, those same workers who were once willing to stand shoulder to shoulder are far less likely to do so, potentially turning an elevator car that held a dozen people into one with a maximum capacity of one to four. Will you expect your workers to endure factoring a 45-minute elevator wait into their commute? Could you suggest they schlep up 30 floors of stairs? Could IT help with scheduling or creating multiple shifts?
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How about the simple act of knowing where people are on a daily basis? We've grown accustomed to the sea of smiling faces accompanied by a red or green indicator as to their availability in the virtual world, but will workers returning to the physical workplace still be tethered to a single screen? Will you need to monitor and balance capacity between buildings or floors? In an emergency, what if your designated "fire warden" is working from home?
Engineering the return to work
Most IT organizations have developed increasing skill levels in concepts like human-centered design and observational research. Just as you might sit and interview a purchasing clerk and observe how she performs her job before designing a new web interface for her and her peers, so too should you observe how staff will return to work. In this case, you have the significant benefit of a ready pool of humans (your IT staff and yourself) whose return to work can be studied.
Before you begin launching your return-to-work efforts, analyze the return-to-work journey just as you'd map any other customer journey. Ask for a set of volunteers and track everything from how they get ready in the morning to where potential chokepoints like the elevator lobby might occur. Investigate how you might accommodate interactions between workers who remain home, either based on preference or limited office capacity, and whether your collaboration tools and workflows will need to adjust.
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Perform this research in conjunction with any design or human resources staff with experience in performing ethnographic research. You'll likely find unanticipated engineering challenges, from capacity constraints to managing allocations of your physical spaces. You'll also discover very human problems that might range from whether a communal coffee pot makes sense to how you accommodate emotions that range from a zeal to return to the office to an abject fear of being in a shared space.
While there are still wild regional variances, the tide of returning to some type of shared workspace is quickly shifting. With some proactive analysis and effort, IT can not only prepare in advance and avoid the scramble that accompanied the transition to virtual work, but also play a leading role in defining the future of the workplace.
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