The COVID-19 pandemic still remains an unknown that will impact our lives for the foreseeable future. At the moment many organisations are tentatively reopening their offices but ensuring there is social distancing in place and usually with far less people actually working there. In practice many employees continue to work remotely (both by choice and through their employer’s guidance), but the situation remains one that is highly changeable, with the possibility of local or even a national lockdown at short notice for the coming months.
The digital workplace and its constituent tools can help organisations to navigate some of the trickier challenges around reopening offices and physical workplaces in several different ways. In the longer term, with scaled-up remote working likely to continue and difficult economic conditions, there is likely to be a longer-term need and desire to reduce office space.
In this article we’re going to explore the different ways the digital workplace can assist organisations in the difficult transition many currently find themselves in, but also support longer-term ambitions to reduce the size of offices. Often the related apps and capabilities help both scenarios. Let’s explore ten key areas where digital workplace tools make a difference.
1. Clear and trusted communication channels
Having clear, trusted communication channels that can deliver real-time updates to all staff has been critical in keeping employees informed and up to date during the crisis. This needs to continue as physical workplaces relay up to date information about different locations, for example if they are open, have had to reclose or have other critical updates. In the longer term, to successfully reduce office space, having clear, real-time information for visitors about a location will be essential, as generally more planning will be required by a user to ensure there is adequate space and equipment for their visit.
2. Advanced remote collaboration tools
It goes without saying that the digital workplace needs to continue to remote working with tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In the longer term to support a reduction in office space, more advanced digital collaboration tools may be needed to support some of the deeper collaboration that goes on within teams and projects, for example the use of whiteboarding.
3. Survey and screening tools and related dashboards
At the moment the safety, health and wellbeing of employees is paramount. Different survey and screening tools can allow employees to help to determine or inform of their need to self-isolate if they get COVID symptoms, and therefore their ability to work at a physical location or otherwise. This can have a knock-on effect on the ability or desire of others to work at a location. Dashboards that display information can also help in planning space utilisation and to identify likely trends.
4. Meeting room booking, desk booking and shift management
One of the major impacts of using office space in the current situation but also going forward if office space is reduced is for there to be more planning; employees can no longer just turn up and expect a desk to be available. This is already the case with many organisations that have already introduced activity-based working. Similarly, meeting room booking also needs to be planned far more carefully, not only to ensure rooms are available but also to provide the cleaning operations that may be required in between meetings. Therefore, systems that support remote meeting room booking, desk allocation and perhaps shift management are required to ensure these processes can happen.
5. Team scheduling
Another aspect of planning a visit to the office may also be to see who else is going to be there, for example needing to be able to coordinate different members of a team so that they are all coming into the office on a given day. Therefore, some kind of team scheduling capability in your digital workplace will also be useful where employees can clearly see who has booked to go into the office.
6. New meeting room support
When you scale up remote working, you need to account for more virtual working spaces within the office to allow staff to conduct virtual meetings with their colleagues who are not in the office. This may mean the need for a rethink or increase in meeting rooms with virtual meeting capabilities, or ones that better integrate with the collaboration tools used by employees working from home. The use of more voice-activation to control or request equipment that helps reduce the need to touch screens may also be useful; we can see more Alexa’s in meeting rooms for example.
One of the challenges to navigate here is how to create “informal” places for impromptu virtual meetings involving more than one person. For example, three people want to go and find a comfortable place for an impromptu meeting. They then want to bring in their colleague who is working from home. How do they do that outside booking a formal meeting room which may not be possible? While the pandemic rages, impromptu meetings may be less than ideal, but going forward creating space for informal and impromptu virtual collaboration will be a challenge for office design.
7. Enterprise contact tracing
Enterprise contact tracing that helps to identify any staff who may have come into contact with a person who subsequently develops COVID symptoms so these staff can then self-isolate, is a hot topic at the moment. Several apps are being marketed with this capability and this may prove to be very valuable in helping organisations and employees safely return to scaled-up physical working in the coming months.
8. Flexible wayfaring tools
As employees return to work, there may be considerable changes that have taken place, for example in reducing space, or in relocating functions, or in new flexible areas. Having a wayfaring tool or office map integrated into the intranet or on an app that allows users to find how offices have changed and where particular facilities are now situated can add real value. In the longer term, wayfaring functionality can help to support a more flexible and streamlined approach to office space that for example responds to seasonal fluctuations or business need, without having to acquire permanent office space.
9. Learning platform
In the short, medium and long-term, the way we work both remotely and within the office is likely to transform. There are change management aspects to consider. Here a good learning platform accessible by everybody and ideally on mobile devices can be useful in helping employees learn about new ways of working, as well as important procedural information that can support safety, health and well-being.
10. Office space utilisation tools
Tracking movements within the physical workplace and measuring the utilisation of space and meeting rooms helps real estate professionals plan the optimum use of office space with a view to supporting employees in their work and collaboration, making better use of space, and identifying opportunities to rationalise space. Here a variety of tools can help, including the use of Bluetooth beacons to monitor movements, use of pressure pads and other sensors to measure footfall, and using meeting room and desk utilisation software to check occupancy. Information generated about meetings and interactions from Microsoft Graph can also be very powerful, while Power BI can also provide useful dashboard and data visualization capabilities.
In using these sorts of tools, it is critical to ensure user’s data privacy is not compromised, and that any employee concerns are addressed.
Harmonising the digital and physical workplace
The harmonisation of the digital and physical workplace is an ongoing theme in the digital workplace world. As the role of the office evolves in both the immediate and longer term, it is clear that the digital workplace plays a critical role in managing and reducing current office space. If you’d like to discuss how the digital workplace can support your longer-term physical workplace strategy, then get in touch.