We are approaching the end of the tunnel – the last 15 months have been some of the most challenging and disruptive in our working lives but thankfully the image at the end of our tunnel is starting to develop; and it looks like the Hybrid Workplace.
Working from Home (WFH) for such an extended time was certainly a novel and at times trying experience for most, but it does appear that, broadly speaking, it was a positive one with 95% of respondents to a recent NUI Galway study favouring WFH on an ongoing basis (63% in some type of blended or hybrid manner, and 32% preferring WFH full time!). This mightn’t be particularly surprising, as people adapted and warmed to their new normal of no commutes, more family time, and an improved work-life balance.
Businesses too saw some benefits with cost savings on travel, commercial insurance and office expenses and many are even pricing in long term savings in real estate.
Despite the workforce's newfound desire to blend WFH with on-site time, there are many challenges ahead for the hybrid workplace – not least of which is a lingering, sinister, and stubborn communicable virus. Space will be at a premium in the new normal; how we use the office will continue to evolve and managing shared on-site resources will be key.
So, let’s address some of the key challenges and enablers for the hybrid workplace and explore what businesses can do to prepare for this new normal.
Planning for the Hybrid Workplace
It may seem like an organic evolution, given all we’ve experienced in the last 15 months, but the transition to the Hybrid Workplace will be anything but smooth. Water will find the path of least resistance and so too might the hybrid model take an adverse course, if left unchecked.
“While some companies are specifying the number of days that people will spend in the workplace and at home, in practice it will be a complex interplay of their role and home environment, together with the ebb and flow of work demands” – The Irish Times, 21 April 2021
For example, it is not unimaginable to assume that a business requiring its employees to spend at least 3 days per week on-site (without further guidance) may end up with a ghost site on Mondays and Fridays and heavy footfall on the midweek days. This midweek-centric model might actually favour collaborative work and in-person meetings, but with office space and desks at a premium and shared resources (like the canteen) operating with limited capacity for some time yet, the midweek crowds could be problematic for site capacity, social distancing, and COVID-19 risk mitigation.
So, how did organisations manage and plan their on-site presence pre-COVID? For example, how did large sites monitor, control, and predict who was working on-site/off-site, travelling for work, sick, absent, on leave, visiting, hot-desking etc.? The answer is they didn’t – because they didn’t have to. At most, on-site presence was monitored, controlled, and projected within teams or departments and that was enough.
Certainly, Access Control Systems can manage access to site but in the main, this is typically the extent of their functionality. Many businesses will be hesitant to admit this, but despite advances in modern technology, a large number of organisations cannot accurately tell you in real-time, how many people are on-site, many could not easily determine who those people are and where they are on-site. Unsurprisingly, they also cannot readily tell who was on-site and certainly, almost all would struggle to tell you who is going to be on-site – this is a problem.
Many businesses will be hesitant to admit this, but despite advances in modern technology, a large number of organisations cannot accurately tell you in real-time, how many people are on-site, many could not determine who those people are and where they are on-site.
Unsurprisingly, they also cannot readily tell who was on-site and certainly, almost all would struggle to tell you who is going to be on-site.
Let’s take each of those elements again and break them down, shall we?
How many people are (or were) on-site?
This question is not only important for evacuation safety but in the new normal, sites need to ensure that they are applying some form of whole-site occupancy management. While there is no concrete guidance on how businesses attribute whole site occupancy, if businesses are not conscious of the potential for a crowded facility to present challenges with social distancing, then the risk of an outbreak is real.
Who and where are (or were) the people on-site?
All businesses are required to log close contact events on-site so that, in the event of an outbreak, these logs can support close contact tracking by the HSE. Without impeding on people’s privacy, if a business is not able to drill down to this level, then an outbreak can quickly lead to community spread.
Who is going to be on-site?
In the context of Hybrid Workplace planning, this is most important. Up until now, the focus for sites has been restricting on-site presence and encouraging people to WFH where possible. This picture is evolving, and it has been widely reported that businesses will be encouraged to invite the workforce back to sites from September. Knowing and controlling who is going to be on-site ensures adequate office space is available, overcrowding can be avoided (social distancing can be maintained) and that on-site shared facilities can be operated safely.
Legacy Access Management Systems often do not have the capability to inform the site of who, when and where people are but there are systems that can enable sites to plan and manage who, when and where people are going to be in the Hybrid Workplace.
Space Management – Desk, Office & Meeting Room Hotelling
Many workplaces will already have modified their offices, meeting rooms and communal areas to allow for social distancing, with signage and barriers, restricting access, or even by moving or removing furniture. The result can often be a working space with a reduced number of desks and limited space for meetings or certainly lessened occupancy in meeting rooms.
In the Hybrid Workplace it may make sense for employees to focus on administrative, reading, and deep work from home and reserve on-site days for collaborative activities. Office space will need to be re-imagined, fixed desks will become less common and certainly less flexible. This reinforces the need for more and larger collaborative spaces and the ability for individuals and teams to plan and book hot-desks, meeting rooms and open collaborative areas; simply using a first-come first-serve approach could lead to confusion, frustration and overcrowding.
Where, and when, work gets done will be determined by what makes the most sense to drive the highest levels of productivity and engagement” George Penn, Gartner
“Desk Hotelling” is a term coined in the co-working sector that refers to booking desks, meeting rooms and collaborative spaces in the same way that one would book a hotel online – leveraging Desk Hotelling tech in the COVID-era allows employees to;
Book desks, offices and collaborative areas in advance via web or mobile devices
Check in on arrival and check out on departure to enable reactive cleaning.
View the office occupancy (floor-plan map) in real-time on their mobile devices or smart screens.
From a Site and People Management perspective, organisations can customise rules for desk, office and meeting room booking to ensure social distancing can be maintained and access occupancy analytics.
This type of tech addresses a few challenges presented by the Hybrid Workplace;
Enhances control of site occupancy.
Increases visibility of who is on-site and when.
Promotes social distancing.
Enables close contact tracing.
Enables reactive cleaning.
SmartWay2 is a leading solution provider for Desk Hotelling, coupling a powerful rules engine with an easy-to-use interface and seamless integration to the Office 365 environment.
Many essential sites did not shut down during the pandemic and operated with reduced numbers on-site, implemented staggered work hours, split shifts, and bubbles or pods. Even with smart office management systems like SmartWay2 , the occupancy of communal spaces (like the canteen, locker rooms and bathrooms) can be areas of concern. Many businesses turned to some innovative tech like the Irish-developed TRUCount to ensure that these locations don’t present an increased risk of virus spread.
As we move into the hybrid model and begin to invite larger cohorts back to the workplace, these innovations will become more important than ever. Many sites struggled throughout the pandemic to ensure everyone had space to spend their morning and lunch breaks safely. Workplace canteens are typically designed to deal with the surges at break-times, with capacity significantly reduced this was a challenge. Now, with larger crowds expected from September, overcrowding could become a real issue.
TRUCount Occupancy Management Systems use smart, accurate, GDPR-compliant sensors to actively monitor and control capacity limits in these communal spaces.
TRUCount displays current and maximum occupancy on screens at the entrance (and even on smart mobile devices) to informs those outside if it’s safe to enter. TRUCount has been deployed on dozens of essential sites around Ireland (and you may even see it in Cork and Dublin Airport ) and has become a key element of footfall control strategy for canteens, locker rooms and more for these facilities.
Shared Resource Management
A sometimes-overlooked pinch-point for employers are those locations on-site where employees were free to come and go without issue, pre-COVID. The canteen is one, of course, but unlike the canteens (which largely stayed open during the pandemic), some shared resources simply closed.
Many sites have a company shop on-site selling discounted or subsidised products; others might have on-site gyms or wellness centres. For these shared resources, the re-opening can be as tricky as it is for an established gym or salon – especially if they don’t have a manager overseeing capacity and time-slots.
Fortunately, it is possible for sites to quickly implement a light booking system to ensure their employees can avail of these services just like they would in the “real world”!
BookAny is an innovative customisable website, tablet and smartphone app that enables sites to manage all of their shared resources in one place – allowing employees to book slots in the gym, visits to the shop, book slots for antigen tests or even slots to charge their electric vehicles!
Sites can set up rules for capacity, cleaning intervals and the app even sends notifications by SMS and email.
The Hybrid Workplace is broadly popular with the workforce and businesses too can benefit from this new paradigm but allowing the new normal workplace to evolve unchecked could present a risk to on-site occupancy, social distancing and overcrowding.
Fortunately, there have been some impressive technical innovations that can enable organisations to apply some structure to their hybrid model in this evolutionary phase.
Planning who is going to be on-site is essential, knowing when employees are going to be on-site is critical and allowing people to share spaces and resources safely is essential.
The other side of the tunnel is the hybrid workplace, but the road may need some paving.
If you would like to learn more about any of the solutions discussed in this article, please get in touch.
Founder & Managing Consultant