Blended Work Practices and Post-COVID-19 Workplaces
Matt Blaydon, building consultancy specialist with commercial property consultancy Matthews & Goodman LLP, finds parallels between employers' responses to the 1918 Spanish Flu and changes which are being introduced in workplaces to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Threat-proofing the workplace isn’t new. Over the last five years, we have helped our clients to protect their teams from potential terrorist attacks - from the creation of safe rooms and implementing intra-building transit management protocols, to developing layered protection and prevention strategies and retrofitting vulnerable buildings with improved security measures.
But 2020 is witnessing the rise of an unprecedented threat - COVID-19. Pandemics aren’t new, but they appear to be increasing in frequency, and their impact can be devastating - medically, economically and socially - on a global scale, so we need to review how we address this potent threat.
Just as the 1918 Spanish Flu changed our predecessors’ approach to social welfare and working practices, COVID-19 will seismically shift what we do and how we do it. However, in the intervening 100 years between the two pandemics, we’ve had a digital revolution that will continue to impact and shape our workplaces and business strategies.
There will be no mention of the cliché ‘new normal’ because there will be no normal. Working from home has completely altered our workplace paradigm (95% worked in an office and 5% WFH) and COVID-19’s legacy will be the rise of the new paradigm - every organisation will create a blended work practice, tailored to their own:
- Employees’ wellbeing, concerns and requests
- Physical distancing protocols
- Business model - e.g. what percentage of your workload requires close supervision best served by attendance in an office
- Cost reduction strategies - e.g. reducing the size of head office and creating satellite hubs (affording shorter and cheaper commutes for staff)
If organisations intend to evolve their physical distancing protocols, what are their options and how will their use of their workplace change?
- Fewer desks and more break-out areas for collaboration, spontaneous meetings, etc.
- Agile desking will replace dedicated workstations -i.e. employees only come in if they have client, supplier or ‘sensitive’ internal meetings
- A more campus/concierge approach to workplace design - more ‘coffee shop’ areas and quiet zones/focus rooms
- Smaller office floor plates will replace trophy head offices
- Multi-occupancy workplaces (such as serviced offices) will lose their luster for health reasons
- The paperless office will finally become a reality
- Offices will become more domesticated and, to accommodate increased working from home, homes will need dedicated ‘work’ areas.
In a recent blog post, the issue that working from home is good in theory but less viable in practice was addressed because, for many, their office, IT, bandwidth, connection speeds and ‘desks’ are far superior in the office than their working from home options. Companies, such as Twitter and BT, are allowing employees to work from home permanently and Mark Zuckerberg believes that within 10 years, 50% of Facebook’s employees will work from home. What do they all have in common? Rather than expecting their employees to fund their own IT and workspace requirements, they are providing them with the correct equipment to do their jobs just as - potentially even more so - productively remotely.
This is why the phrase ‘new normal’ is a lazy shorthand. Technology will enable organisations to meet their productivity and cost management goals, whilst also helping them meet their employees’ professional and personal expectations. Each organisation will have a unique mix of ‘blended work practices’, enabled by technology and determined by their own culture, philosophy and financial resources.
Developing Resilient Health & Safety Models
The biggest shift in a post COVID-19 workplace will be in the health and safety strategies adopted. How do you protect your workforce from an invisible, highly transferable, contagious virus? Once again, our biggest ally might be technology. Piloting is already well underway on:
- Robot cleaners which spray disinfectant at a consistent rate and speed, as well as having UVC sterilisation lights
- AI to record disinfectant cycles, locations, quality, etc., as well as track and record who entered a building and which spaces they utilised - critical when tracing potential outbreaks
- Heavier filtration systems to reduce the spread of airborne diseases
- Deployment of touch-free technology throughout buildings - from lifts and security access, to coffee machines
- Installation of toxicity level monitors throughout buildings
- Screening gates at entrances and exits, to check the temperature of visitors and employees
But, of course, pandemics evolve. Developments like these might help reduce the threat posed by COVID-19, but will they be sufficient to tackle COVID-21, or COVID-22?
We don’t know, but what we have learnt from 2020 is that we are resilient, can adapt quickly and we must keep up with changes we constantly face.