The coronavirus pandemic is creating new paradigms - there is hardly any aspect of our "normal" lives that has not been touched; how we meet, greet, interact, work, eat, socialise and travel. The normal we knew is evolving into a new normal, as it forces us to adapt how we go about our daily lives.
Businesses, like human-beings, have been learning how to adapt to this new normal, but no two businesses are alike and standard control systems to mitigate the risks posed by the virus do not exist despite the regulations put in place for Irish workplaces.
Recent surges in case numbers across Europe are evidence that the virus capitalises on complacency and opening up economies and businesses, while vital, is perilous. The fear and uncertainty that led countries to lockdown is naturally giving way to acceptance, but the threat posed by COVID-19 to humans and businesses alike has not abated. Outbreaks can shut businesses down - we need look no further than the meat processing sector in the midlands for evidence of that.
This article focuses on arguably one of the most significant regulatory requirements for Irish workplaces (mentioned in a previous blog), that of Occupancy Management.
But what does Occupancy Management mean? How does Occupancy Management prevent the spread of the virus? And what technologies can business leverage to ensure their sites and people are safe and compliant?
In our blogpost "Key Regulations for the Irish Workplace" we cover the principle guidelines published by the Irish agencies - below we have extracted the pertinent sections regarding Occupancy Management.
Provide for physical distancing across all work activities (<2 metres) as well as staggering breaks, reduction of meetings and modified canteen facilities.
Office Planning & Work Scheduling
where office work is essential, free office capacity must be used as much as is reasonably practicable and work organised in such a way that multiple occupancy of office premises is avoided and/or physical distances maintained
organise workers into teams who consistently work and take breaks together. The teams should be as small as is reasonably practicable in the context of the work to be done
Workplace Canteens are a particular battleground
organise breaks in such a way as to facilitate maintenance of physical distancing during breaks
reorganise and rearrange working and break areas. For example, placing tables and chairs far enough apart in canteens
consider closing canteen facilities if public health measures including social distancing cannot be facilitated. If closing, provide information on delivery options
stagger canteen use and extend serving times
implement a queue management system with correct distance markings to avoid queues at food counters, tray return points and checkouts
Organisations must think Strategically and Long-Term
Smaller organisations and businesses where Working from Home (WFH) can be implemented effectively, broadly and long-term might be able to implement an Occupancy Management System on the back of an envelope, but larger organisations and companies whose productivity is impacted without "boots on the ground" need to take a strategic approach to this complex (and potential life-threatening) challenge.
And we must bear in mind the risk of short-termism - many recognised experts in the area of epidemiology consider COVID-19 to be a virus that will remain in circulation permanently in some form (like the influenza virus). Until such time as a vaccine is administered sufficiently to provide herd immunity to the population the virus will remain as virulent and as deadly as it is today.
What is Occupancy Management?
Occupancy Management is the manner by which organisations control the numbers of people on site in the context of COVID-19 restrictions and maintaining social distancing. These measures might be physical (e.g. moving furniture, restricting use for desks, queueing systems) or on/off site scheduling (e.g. WFH, staggered break times, split shifts, visitor restrictions).
All organisations are (or should be) implementing some form of Occupancy Management but the question remains; are all businesses effectively deploying Occupancy Management Systems?
Two Types of Occupancy Management
What might not be immediately discernible from the regulations is that there are two distinct challenges when it comes to Occupancy Management - managing workspaces and managing communal areas.
Workspace Occupancy Management is the strategy an organisation takes to control the use of desks, office spaces, and meeting rooms.
Typically, a reflexive deployment of this strategy involves physical measures - moving furniture and spacing desks to ensure two meter distancing can be observed, closing meeting rooms and enclosed shared spaces.
Unfortunately, not all organisations have the space to implement these measures while also providing adequate space for all colleagues to return to site and broad-stroke closure of meeting rooms is not an effective use of available space. Even organisations with significant footprints will find that there is insufficient space to house their workforce completely.
Communal Space Occupancy Management requires a different approach than workspace management as it involves controlling the footfall in areas where people would normally congregate at certain times of the day e.g. canteens, restrooms and changing areas.
Communal spaces present specific challenges, especially for larger organisations. Canteens pre-COVID naturally experienced surges at mealtimes with people at close quarters for up to an hour at a time. Changing rooms and toilets typically have periods of high occupancy where social distancing can be problematic. Even with staggered times rigidly imposed both of these scenarios are impractical in the longer term for businesses that wish to bring their workforces back on site.
Challenges in Occupancy Management
To put it succinctly, with a highly contagious respiratory contagion in circulation, organisations need to manage, control and track who is on site, when, for how long, where they will work, who and how they will meet, when and where they will eat...
What differentiates this pandemic from any other in history is the human races ability to use technology to combat the virus both in terms of the search for a vaccine and limiting its spread.
Occupancy Management is not a new field by any means - we use these technologies more often than we know (think, trying to book an AirBnB or a hotel).
Office/Desk Management (also known as "desk hotelling") and People Counting technologies have existed for many years also and are popular for organisations that hot-desk (like co-working offices) and event management (like concerts and sports) respectively. It was quite a short jump for these technologies to pivot to providing solutions for compliance with COVID-19 regulations.
One such solution for Workspace Occupancy Management is SmartWay2, a flexible, easy-to-use workspace management platform, whether you have one meeting room and a few desks, or thousands across global offices. This highly configurable system allows organisations to map their sites workspaces and apply rules and constraints to their occupancy levels. It then allows users to book workspaces much in the same way one would book a hotel.
Not only this but it also has nifty multi-functional desk disks that operate as status indicators and check in points.
This type of tech even enables a responsive cleaning management regime, further building on a solid business case as deployment is rapid and economical.
Meeting rooms, often closed off as a knee-jerk reaction to regulations can be effectively repurposed as work areas using SmartWay2 to schedule usage and cleaning while enforcing social distancing.
As SmartWay2, uses a cloud-based intelligent database with advanced analytical and reporting functionality it can be interrogated in the scenario that a colleague reports as symptomatic to enable rapid contact tracing.
An increasingly popular solution to Communal Space Occupancy Management is Irish-developed TRUCount, which is an IoT-enabled, cloud-based, rapidly deployable system that can accurately capture and display the number of occupants of a given space without the use of cameras. Large screen displays at entrances indicate to would-be enterers if it safe to do so.
TRUCount is currently operating in manufacturing facilities around the country as well as retail outlets, hotels, and tourist locations.
TRUCount data is accessible through a management console or, on a convenient app which allows users and management to monitor occupancy in real-time.
The system is 100% GDPR compliant and has no cameras or data interrogation. It is lightweight and can be rapidly installed by electricians and maintenance personnel.
COVID-19 is changing every aspect of our lives and is presenting businesses with challenges in bringing their workforces back to site safely and compliantly. Luckily, there are innovative and proven technical solutions available that can enable businesses to manage this complex and perilous landscape effectively, compliantly and economically.
If you or your organisation needs further support or advice on any of these technologies or on custom solutions, please get in touch - we can help.
m: +353 85 154 8875