Steve Vatidis: Back to work with social distancing top of mind

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This article was contributed by Steve Vatidis, Executive Chairman at Smartway2

The UK's lockdown measures in response to the pandemic are beginning to ease, with many sections of the economy already open for business in the new normal. After sitting empty for the majority of 2020 so far, many office spaces are beginning to reopen. This is a welcome prospect for many businesses who've coped with remote working but benefit greatly from face-to-face interactions which boost business productivity.

However, getting back to the office safely without a resurgence of COVID-19 cases will be essential to get the economy moving. There's going to be a lot of change in our workplaces.

Same office space, different rules to follow

Returning to the office will not be simple. Employers need to make sure they can provide their workers with safe workspaces flexible enough to accommodate the need for continued social distancing. There are already a host of rules, including Health & Safety and Fire Regulations, which businesses need to follow. These may be manageable at an office level, but when looking to coordinate an office space which is used to holding over a thousand individuals, things quickly become complex. 

To complicate things further, social distancing rules have and will change over time -  we've seen this already happen with the two-metre rule becoming ‘one metre plus' and it has been clear this could be reversed in a few months, if government guidance changes. Given this possibility, ‘making do and mend' is a bad strategy.

Many businesses previously will have already been trying to maximise their office floor plans around the two-metre rule. These same organisations now need to re-evaluate their use of space again, analysing how best they can attain value without compromising the safety of their employees. In the future, employers should expect to be updating their workspace with guideline changes becoming more frequent, depending on the number of coronavirus cases either locally or nationally.

No matter how the rules change, businesses still face a drastic reduction in usable space. While much of the press coverage has been on smaller workplaces, particularly in the retail sector. The issue of space management looms largest for the large employers such as banks, insurers, consultancies and agencies Governmental and private.

A clean break from crowded offices

Pre-pandemic, a popular way to use space in the office was to have a 1:1 ratio of employees to desks and to cram as many of these desks into the available space as possible. In many cases, it's clear this arrangement won't work because of increased traffic in busy spaces like lifts, kitchens and toilets. 

Employers will have to adapt their workspaces to be more flexible, and allow for increased spacing between people throughout the working day. This needs to be accounted for throughout the office, with special emphasis on communal spaces. 

Those managing workspaces will also feel pressure to maintain more intense cleaning schedules, a vital step-up which office spaces will need to take. Inevitably cleaning rosters will become more complicated as employers introduce flexible working schedules. Changes will include ensuring greater spacing between desks, keeping track of which desks have been used, which need deep cleaning, in the event of a confirmed COVID case  and which are safe for work could prove to be a logistical headache. 

Automate the transition to the new normal

Employers who want to minimise the stress of returning to work safely should look to deploy smart software which can easily and quickly manage the social distancing rules. This will not only help employers re-emphasise the importance of employee wellbeing but will allow them to spend more time focusing on getting their business back to normal. 

CIOs should play a key part in the buying decisions for software given today such systems manage multiple tasks at once, such as flexible desk bookings, which take into account times between use and cleaning schedules. 

Offices can also benefit from using digital signage which when integrated with smart software to show if a desk is safe to use or not depending on recent work or cleaning activities. This can also be applied to meeting rooms, which in between meetings will need a ‘rest period' to allow cleaners to decontaminate any potentially harmful viruses present. 

Having an automated record of when employees have visited the office, should be a key priority for employers. With this record, if a colleague does fall ill with coronavirus, organisations can quickly run a report which accurately identifies who they may have come into contact with. Employers need to be able to prioritise who they contact first depending on how much exposure colleagues may have had with the worker whose contracted COVID. Management decisions like this can be based on how closely the two colleagues were sitting next to each other, or if they were in the office on the same day at one point in time during the possible infection period. 
If people really are the most valuable asset in a company, managing them smartly is a top management priority. As the new normal evolves, senior management teams will need to keep their office spaces up to date. Software solutions which can update quickly without requiring lengthy code changes to factor in new rules, will perform best with this task. 

For instance, at Smartway2, we use a dynamic rules engine which allows users to implement new rule changes easily and quickly, without the need to adapt code. Solutions which are customised or parameter based will struggle to maintain pace with the inevitable rule changes set to occur over time.

Implement, adjust and repeat

Too many businesses may assume they can easily implement social distancing rules safe working by relying on manual methods, including spreadsheets and sign-in sheets. However, this process will prove time-consuming and inaccurate if workers have to jump through several social distancing hoops, shifting focus away from the work they're hoping to complete in the office. 

The new normal with constantly changing rules is here to stay for a significant amount of time. Software tools which easily automate social distancing guidelines to ease pressure on companies are a great way to make the new normal a safer normal. Employers need to be ready to implement the rules and adjust to keep their continuity and productivity. Offices are vital collaboration spaces for many businesses and getting back to them safely should be a smooth process. Welcome to the new, smarter, normal workplace.