With three different Covid-19 vaccines now being approved for emergency use and the number of inoculated adults continuing to rise by the day, many organizations are eager to have workers back in their offices again. In fact, according to the results of a recent study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 75% of executives surveyed said they anticipate at least half of office employees will be working in the office by July 2021.
Additionally, though many organizations are rethinking and even reducing their physical footprint in the wake of Covid, the same PwC study found that 56% of executives expect they will need more office space over the next three years. But while both businesses and employees are anxious to return to some semblance of normalcy, experts say that a return to business as usual will still look a lot different in the waning days of the pandemic.
When is the Right Time to Open?
Before businesses can begin planning for the return of workers en masse from an operational perspective, Matt Hinton, Partner at risk management consulting firm Control Risks, says they must understand what conditions, both external and internal, must be met before they can move people back into various facilities. Government rules around acceptable vaccination or infection rates would likely be the biggest external factors, according to Hinton, while internal conditions would likely involve things like employee sentiment towards returning to the office.
“In addition to figuring out when we’re going back and what those conditions look like, what we’re recommending to companies and I think companies that are doing this well, is they are saying, “we’ve figured out when we want to go back, so what are we going to bring back, who are going to bring back and, potentially most importantly, why?’ We don’t know any organizations that are just bringing everyone back, flipping the light switch and bringing everything back the way it used to be,” Hinton says. “Companies really do need to think through, ‘are we just going to bring back essential services? Are we going to take a hybrid approach? Are we going to bring back a small group of people and grow from there?’ And they need to be able to talk to why they are going to do that to make sure it is as effective as possible.”
What’s Needed to Reopen?
Once an organization has determined when they are going to reopen their office locations and who will be staffing them, Hinton says they need to think about how they are going to monitor what is going on in the world relative to the pandemic in the surrounding localities as well as how they are handling things internally when it comes mitigating the spread of the virus, which is why Hinton believes that communications will be absolutely critical for businesses as they repopulate their facilities with employees.
“When we are talking about people changing their routines again in a major way for what will end up being the second time in a year and a half, making sure those communications are on point is going to be critical as people will be leaning on them – as they always have in crises – especially as they are in some ways putting their health and safety in the hands of their employers as they return to the office,” he explains.
Another, perhaps often overlooked element in this equation, according to Hinton, are considerations around transportation and how employees will be getting to the office once they have been reopened, which can be much different depending on the location, be it a large city, suburb or rural area, and the protocols that need to be put in place for people using public transportation versus those using their own vehicles. Of course, people can also expect some of the measures put in place during the pandemic, such as social distancing and possibly the continued use of various forms of personal protective equipment so long as Covid remains a threat.
“There is also what I would call kind of ‘workplace health considerations’ that organizations need to be thinking about in order to let people come back successfully and safely,” Hinton adds. “That is going to include some of the basics around what kind of physical distancing we need to do in this new world. How are we going to use public spaces? How are we going to look at entry and exit flow to minimize it? How are we going to use conference rooms? What are we doing with PPE? What are we doing with visitor protocols?”
One of the emerging areas of concern for organizations now is also focused on testing and vaccinations. In fact, Hinton says that many businesses that have had to keep their office doors open through the pandemic have begun offering onsite testing, which has served as both an employee perk and a way to ensure a safe working environment.
“We’re starting to see companies, now that vaccines are coming out, contemplate how they can provide onsite vaccinations as well when they are more readily available,” Hinton says. “There are some really interesting decisions that companies need to make around whether or not they want to offer that as a service as well as how to incentivize employees to partake in that as part of an overall health initiative.”
Despite the tremendous strides that have been made in the fight against Covid, Hinton says that organizations must think about the worse-case scenario of having to dial their reopening plans back should infections skyrocket again should a new, more virulent strain rear its ugly head.
“What if we have to close again because something goes wrong, because variants break through the vaccine or because the vaccine doesn’t have as long-lasting immunity, or whatever it happens to be,” he says. “Having those reclosure plans in place now will ensure that people aren’t scrambling as much as they were at the beginning of Covid.”
The Challenges of Remote Work
Even as conditions improve, some organizations are still looking at the latter part of 2021 or even 2022 as the earliest time in which they would even consider bringing their workers back into an office environment. But while leaning on the new work from home paradigm may reduce Covid exposure potential for employees, it has subsequently opened the door to a new wave of challenges.
According to Hinton, the adoption of remote work structures has opened up broader cultural issues within organizations, namely how do you foster a spirit of collaboration when you have some people in the office and some in their homes? However, the bigger challenge for companies that choose not to open up while many of their competitors do will be in addressing employee and customer dissatisfaction.
“There are lots of polls out there that show employees want to be back to work to some degree and if they are not able to come back and they are seeing their family, friends and others coming back that could cause major issues between employee and employer,” Hinton warns. “Somewhat similarly, if clients are starting to see that your competitors are going back and that your competitors are operating in the same environment that you are, and they can receive service from the competitor easier because they are not in that remote environment anymore that could also cause customer dissatisfaction and/or potentially pressure for you to come back sooner than you wanted to.”
The Pandemic's Impact on Business Continuity
While the global spread of the coronavirus has been a seminal moment in how all governments will plan for and respond to any future contagion, it also left an indelible mark on business continuity planning. For the most part, prior to Covid, Hinton says business continuity plans were developed by companies to help keep them afloat should something like a natural disaster severely hamper their operations for a week or two at the most and that the pandemic has shown the need to flesh these plans out over the longer term. However, Hinton says many may view the pandemic as a once in a generation event with the bulk of threats they face still being of that one- or two-week variety, which means companies may keep the same plans in place but also develop a separate, robust communicable disease plan to account for pandemics like Covid moving forward.
“I think it is important to note from a business continuity perspective that we are starting to see more organizations try and take steps to ensure that future disruptions don’t actually disrupt them in the first place - not having to rely on a plan at all because they’ve taken steps to try and get ahead of the disruption itself,” he adds.
Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].