Enterprises Plan for Return to Workplace

Businesses are considering what the new normal workplace will look like, including social distancing, plexiglass, PPE and, in some cases, contact tracing tools.

Jessica Davis, Senior Editor

May 5, 2020

5 Min Read
Image: Blue Planet Studio -

Depending on where you live and work, you have likely spent the past several weeks under some kind of stay-at-home order or other restriction. Some governors are extending those stay-at-home orders, but others are loosening restrictions. Even in the states hardest hit by COVID-19 coronavirus, governors are very aware of the toll the restrictions are taking on people and the economy. If they haven't loosened restrictions, they are beginning to talk about what that will look like.

Enterprise organizations are talking about that, too. While the IT organizations of office-based workplaces may have rushed to get workers equipped to work from home back in March, the move back to the office will be slower and more considered if it comes at all. Some organizations plan to make remote work permanent.

At the same time, many organizations are also starting to think about what the workplace will look like when other employees return.

Mick Slattery, president of managed services provider CompuCom, a subsidiary of Office Depot, said that his customers had initially asked for a lot of help going virtual, including with things like multifactor authentication and collaboration tools.

"We are past that now," he said. "We are having conversations now with customers about what does the office look like when we get back and how socially distanced that will be."

A lot of that will fall under the purview of HR, Slattery said. But it's going to be a huge change.

"The last 6 weeks have changed the outlook on work from home more than the last few decades have," he said. Not everyone will go back to the office, and organizations are settling into a new normal with virtual meetings and other collaboration tools. 

Phase 2 of this pandemic emergency will include some people working from the office and some people working from home, according to Slattery. There will be a more flexible set of expectations about who works where and when.

Slattery said for his own company he is setting up something he calls "core hours," which will be certain hours when we expect people to be in the office. Then there will be other hours where those employees work from wherever -- perhaps the office or perhaps from home.

Consulting firm PwC plans to reconfigure its office space for social distancing. The firm will also require temperature checks and masks worn both at work and during transit. In addition, the company is planning plexiglass shields and other personal protective equipment for IT pros and other support professionals. Also, PwC said people should just stay home -- anyone who is not feeling well or if they are in a high-risk category or caring for someone in a high-risk category. PwC has also developed its own set of products called Check-in, which includes an Automatic Contact Tracing tool used to identify employees that may have been exposed to another employee who has tested positive for COVID-19.

"It's not just a question of 'How do I safely get people back to work the way I did before?'" said Tim Ryan, PwC chair and senior partner, during a call with the media following the release of the company's most recent Pulse survey of 300 CFOs. "The question we're hearing is, 'What does work look like going forward and how does a company work differently going forward in leveraging the fact that now in many cases virtual working is working safely and working effectively, balancing employee safety? And, also, how does a company manage its costs and productivity needs going forward?' The debate is not simply getting back to the way it was done, but also, what does it look like going forward."

The steps PwC have taken internally align with the thinking of other organizations in the company's CFO survey, conducted every 2 weeks during the crisis. The most recent poll showed that 77% of CFOs anticipate changing workplace safety measures upon returning to on-site work, 65% will reconfigure worksites to promote physical distancing, and 22% plan to do some form of contact tracing.

"Workforce health and safety will increasingly become a really critical job benefit and companies will likely leverage more tech solutions to help both in traditional office environments, as well as increasing the percentage of workforces working remotely," Amity Millhiser, PwC US vice chair and chief clients officer, said in the media call.

Indeed, 49% anticipate turning to remote work as a permanent option for the roles that will allow it, Millhiser said.

Yet some people just can't work remotely, like restaurant workers, manufacturing workers, and hair stylists and barbers. The nature of the work requires them to be on site. 

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates also addressed some of the complex challenges that will come with a return to the physical work location in a recent blog post.

"The basic principle should be to allow activities that have a large benefit to the economy or human welfare but pose a small risk of infection," he wrote. "But as you dig into the details and look across the economy, the picture quickly gets complicated. It's not as simple as saying 'you can do X but not Y.' The modern economy is far too complex and interconnected for that."

He offers the modern restaurant as an example. Even if the restaurant can keep diners six feet away from each other, will the restaurant also have a working supply chain for food ingredients? Can they be profitable with the reduced capacity? How will employees get to work if public transit is impacted? Restaurants and manufacturers are likely to be among the most impacted industries.

The Gates Foundation has committed $250 million to addressing the pandemic. In addition, the Foundation has said that it will leverage its $2.5 billion Strategic Investment Fund to address the crisis. In a 2015 TED Talk, Gates spoke about the need to prepare for the next epidemic, and how unprepared we really are.

For more coverage on IT's response to the COVID-19 crisis, start here:

COVID-19: Latest News & Commentary for IT Leaders

About the Author(s)

Jessica Davis

Senior Editor

Jessica Davis is a Senior Editor at InformationWeek. She covers enterprise IT leadership, careers, artificial intelligence, data and analytics, and enterprise software. She has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology. Follow her on twitter: @jessicadavis.

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