Staying ahead of the pandemic’s impact is a challenge causing sleepless nights for facility managers and business owners these days. At the time of this writing, the World Health Organization reports that there are almost 100 million confirmed cases globally, 25 million of which are in the USA. One year after the virus was declared a pandemic, the economic damage is considerable: the IMF estimates that the global economy shrank by 4.4% in 2020 – the most severe decline since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Healthcare providers are overwhelmed, and retail and hospitality industries have been decimated. Rising unemployment has increased the strain on government programs. All of these pressures contribute to growing social tension and unrest.
On the positive side of the ledger, multiple vaccines are on the horizon, well ahead of expectations. Even so, it seems that every day there are new “nth wave” stories, reports of new virus strains, vaccine distribution challenges and other alarming statistics that give pause to your best laid plans. How do you factor in this rapid-fire information and reconfigure your environment and operation for a productive return to work for your employees?
To be sure, we need to re-open the economy – but in a safe, constrained way. The right plan of action will be critical to your organization’s success through the uncertain months ahead. But where do you begin to focus? What should your priorities be? And what adjustments should you make right now to ensure your physical space is safe, sanitized and equipped for changes ahead?
Until the vaccines are made available to the general population, and herd immunity is achieved, the pandemic is still a threat. If we look for examples to those countries that have been most successful at containing the virus, we see that they have three things in common:
1. Firm action prioritizing safety
Quick decisive action has been instrumental in preventing outbreaks. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The world’s first awareness of COVID-19 came from cases among travelers arriving in Taiwan from Wuhan, China. The country quickly halted flights from much of China, quarantined travelers from other areas, stopped cruise ships from docking, implemented widespread testing and quadrupled production of face masks within a month.”
2. Rapid course correction in response to new information
New Zealand and Australia have frequently been cited as success stories in managing their COVID-19 response, in large part due to their collaborative work with and support of science, public health and medical experts. The British Medical Journal noted that “Confronted with the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, New Zealand initially rolled out its existing national influenza pandemic plan as the basis for its response. Australia did likewise. Fortunately, both countries had a brief period to refine their approaches before the first reported COVID-19 case arrived on 25 January in Australia and 26 February in New Zealand. This timing gave them an opportunity to learn from the effects of the pandemic on countries in the northern hemisphere and consider the different response strategies.”
3. Leverage available technology
Much of the technology needed to contain the virus already exists, and simply needs to be recognized and repurposed. Bloomberg reports that “A contact-tracing app in Singapore that’s a key part of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped to reduce the time taken to isolate contacts of a patient from four days to less than two… The TraceTogether program, which includes a mobile app and token, now covers 3.4 million users, about 60% of Singapore’s population.”
Bringing it together, there are three ways for facility managers to successfully expedite the Return to Work:
1. Commitment to Safety First
During a pandemic, everyone wants safety information at their fingertips, and that goes for employees and clients as much as it does for consumers. Those at the helm of planning and managing the return to the office must move forward briskly. That means priority needs to be placed on:
- Identifying stakeholder groups
- Convening a Return-to-Office (RTO) team
- Establishing guiding principles
- Completing an environmental scan of the facility and stakeholder situation
- Taking an inventory of relevant available resources and conducting a gap/needs analysis
- Formulating a RTO plan which includes
- operational policies for the new workspace which includes visitor management, meeting rooms, and seating configurations
- health, safety and cleaning protocols & programs
- a communication plan to update stakeholders as the situation develop
2. Agile decision making
We can continue to expect that there will be ebbs and flows of infection, given the globalized supply chain and the need to sustain the world economy. Moreover, the coronavirus continues to mutate, and emerging strains will force organizational decision-making to be rapid and iterative. The tools and processes you use to arrive and execute these decisions must be similarly responsive and flexible. As much as possible, workplace decisions must be decentralized and coordinated with local leadership to address the needs and available resources of local jurisdictions.
We have seen that technology at a country level can be an effective tool for maintaining normal operations. As businesses re-open their facilities, we take a cue from how technology has been used by state actors to track/trace well being, and monitor social distancing. Intelligent new workplace management platforms will do a lot of the thinking and planning, and reduce the headaches around distancing rules, space access hierarchies, local legislations and new health mandates. With the right tools at hand, data and intelligence will be at your fingertips to efficiently manage a safe and productive workplace from anywhere.
When selecting the right platform, however, buyer beware. Not all workforce planning technology is built equally. Be sure your platform gives you the full scope of tools and functionality to:
- Plan an efficient office space with live digital views for hybrid environments
- Enable your employees with intelligent room and desk booking software and apps
- Maximize safety and hygiene protocols with wellness checks, contact tracing, health monitoring and continuously updated cleaning and space usage updates
We have left 2020 behind and have an interesting journey ahead of us. Chances are we’ll see a few more curves in the road beyond 2021. But with a focus on safety, and the right technologies, facility managers will be able to stay one step ahead, outthink the pandemic – and begin to safely usher in that “new normal”.
As the head of IBI Group’s Office of Innovation, Deepak is driving IBI’s transformational pivot to a technology-driven design firm through focused efforts catalyzing core growth, transforming IBI’s business models, exploring future tech disruptions in the industry, and fostering innovation.