Offices are largely empty these days, with employees staying at home and only essential personnel making the trek to work. But while companies are hoping that the return to normal will come soon, the likelihood is that office environments will be forced to change after the COVID-19 crisis lifts.
For HR Departments, this could mean making changes to workplace procedures and practices and a re-examination of policies to fit in with the ‘new working world’. While there is still uncertainty over how precisely this new situation will look, there are already some clues of what lies on the horizon.
Why Are Changes Needed?
It’s rooted in the fear of a COVID-19 second wave and perhaps even more. US director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Dr Anthony Fauci stated: “We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that.”
He also warned in an interview: “When you gradually come back, you don’t jump into it with both feet”, and even stated he thought people might not “ever shake anybody’s hands” again.
Second waves have already been reported in northern Japan and Singapore, who had both previously lifted restrictions. It means that caution is probably the flavour of the rest of the year.
With continued vigilance so important, how might the new working environment change? Here are just a few.
4 Ways COVID-19 May Change Your Office
- Remote Working The Norm
- Revised Employer Duty Of Care
Many companies have already been forced to adopt remote working, and it’s likely the practice will be retained beyond the COVID-19 restrictions. Working from home had already been promoted as the answer to a variety of issues, from reducing rush-hour traffic congestion to boosting employee engagement, productivity and retention.
But as the practice proves successful, companies will see the operational savings that can be made too. Think of travel expenses and parking expenses, and health costs linked with stress and anxiety.
Also, office space rental. If fewer employees need to come in, offices don’t need to be so big. And with Dublin office property rates as high as €673 per square metre, it can mean a major fall in overheads.
If working from home becomes as commonplace as is now expected, then employers will have to review how this affects their duty of care. Employment legislation places responsibilities on employers to look after the safety of their employees “as far as is reasonably practical”. In the office, this is relatively simple to establish and manage.
Remote working offers a new set of challenges. Already, some employers around the world have had to carry out ‘home risk assessments’ to certify whether the employee’s workspace at home was safe. But there are several areas that need to be considered:
- Equipment And Technology
- Procedures And Expectations
- Greater Flexibility
Employers must provide the equipment and technology needed to work effectively from home, as well as tech support.
Employees must know new procedures, including rules for storing information, data protection, and how their performance will be measured.
Frequent touching base, with clearly established methods – emails, messaging, conference calls etc.
Employers may need to be more flexible to allow for family responsibilities, like childcare or other family care. Consider introducing different hours, fewer working hours, adaptable targets.
Even if remote working is embraced more by companies, it is unlikely that the office will become a thing of the past – at least completely. Instead, office design is likely to be affected, especially with some predicting that social distancing may become an element of workplace health and safety.
There are two main ways to go:
- Resort to the cubicle-layout so popular until the 1990s.
- Adopt a layout that prioritises the 6ft (2m) spaces we are so alert to now.
One leading real estate services firm has already come up with the Six Feet Office, which incorporates workstations spaced at least 6ft apart and visually displayed traffic routes to help ensure a virus-safe working environment.
Probably a welcome measure anyway, but it is expected the new office will have sanitised dispensers visible and accessible for everyone. It is revolutionary in the same way that water dispensers were almost four decades ago, but unlike drinking water, cleaning workstations, phones, keyboard and mouse, and other equipment after use may become company policy.
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