How workplaces will reopen around the world

Picture of Christina Tubb

Added on by 7 min read

people walking near building during daytime

With all the uncertainty regarding coronavirus, it might feel strange to start working on how to open our offices again.

But that’s exactly what we need to do, because going back to work is going to be a bigger adjustment than most think. And those who procrastinate risk wasting a lot of time and money in last-minute solutions. 

Take a moment to imagine re-opening the offices exactly as they were before: you’re sitting in a full open space, sharing a row of desks. Visitors and contractors scribble illegible names in a logbook. Meetings kick off with a handshake. You eat from communal snack bowls.

Sounds terrifying, right?

Opening back up is going to be a rollercoaster. Or, as Tomas Puyeo calls it, a dance. Wuhan’s return to work is currently dominated by 4-time daily temperature checks and a state intelligence apparatus. New Zealand’s return to work at Level 3 is focused on starting up construction and labor in a way that is safe and contactless.

The good news is that you’re about to read conclusions drawn from speaking with hundreds of workplace pros around the world.

You’ll see how they’re treating the four phases of lockdown. You’ll read about the top mistakes experts think you’ll want to avoid.

Finally, you’ll get insight into the approaches the leaders are taking (I’ll give you a clue: it’s not just temperature scanners). 

The 4 phases of a post-coronavirus return to work

The first challenging part of building the post-corona workplace is that - in contrast to SARS, Ebola, and even the Spanish Flu - the coronavirus often spreads without symptoms.

You’re going to want to be very careful doing a copy-and-paste of the SARS playbook in the long run. 

The second challenging aspect is getting everyone in your department to accept that there will be no return to normal. 

My bet is that we go through 4 phases in our return to work.

1. The Reaction

Businesses adopted the SARS playbook, which was focused on early detection through temperature screening, travel reviews, contact tracing, and business continuity plans featuring split shifts.

2. The Breakup

Everyone paused all but the most essential of operations while adjusting to working from home and conserving cash.

3. The Rebound

Companies are gingerly starting re-opening their businesses, but will (hopefully) remain hyper vigilant as they test new approaches.

4. The New Normal

The most successful long-term responses will be from those who have accepted that until the entire world is vaccinated, there will be no return to normal. More than anything, we are going to be significantly less cavalier about who we let into our personal space.

What will be the challenges of rebounding from coronavirus’ impact on our offices?

During the breakup we swore off visitors, grew our beards out, and watched a lot of romantic comedies.

Soon we’ll be sick of sitting at home and we’ll be ready for the Rebound. Like any great rebound, we’re going to see some questionable fashion choices and some terrifyingly short-term mindsets.

Here are the top 4 mistakes to avoid during the rebound.

1. Let’s not run the SARS playbook with manual solutions.

As people search for manual solutions to safety in the rebound phase, many will be tempted to transfer risk by asking security guards and front desk personnel to read people’s temperature, etc.

These solutions will fail. Asymptomatic people won’t be caught, and this action runs the risk of infecting someone who is literally in contact with every single person coming through your front door. 

2. Let’s not reopen without thinking through the end-to-end workplace experience.

Many offices are going to realize that they can’t fit everyone into the same space as before without respecting safe distancing.

Imagine your staff’s frustration at coming in and discovering that they don’t have a place to sit. Or, your contractors’ frustration at realizing there isn’t enough space for them to work safely.

Companies will need tools to display expected occupancy rates and triggers that make sure desks, keyboards, and monitors are cleaned between each use. (Check out Proxyclick partners like Condeco for great solutions around space management.)

3. Let’s not go in full force for temporary solutions.

Remember all those travel declarations? Not so useful anymore. Many countries now have a contact tracing app or risk-weighting system, but they stop at the border: so what happens when you start accepting international visitors?

Take a moment to see who the winner is before you invest in the Betamax of coronavirus protection systems.

4. A pandemic is no reason to play fast and loose with data privacy.

If anything, you should be protecting people’s data more ferociously.

I’ve seen a lot of companies try to re-create the logbook using a static online form. Since the data wasn’t validated, people started entering their names as Mickey Mouse.

In response, companies stepped up the game and started asking for passport numbers and asking them to validate hosts. Then, hackers realized that they can start doxxing static form links to get the names of people working at companies.

You know where this ends up. Resist the urge to use workarounds where private data is concerned, because it’s a slippery slope. 

The two things you absolutely need during the Rebound are flexibility and data.

Flexibility is important because whatever you put in place today will be changed tomorrow. You need tools that you control, not tools that require training or are coded in HTML. Systems that you can edit from your home at 10pm when you see the rules have changed...yet again. 

The second thing you want is data. You want to make sure that you can export and own all of the data  so you can use it to protect yourself against any lawsuits.

Trust me on this one: the lawsuits will come, and you want all the ammo you can get.

What's next for offices and workplace security?

Three monoliths Apple, Google, and Alibaba are each betting on a new normal that’s focused on identity and risk metrics.

If you ask me, if these three converge on an approach, it’s a pretty good bet that you should do the same. Why? They’ve realized that storing things like a one-off temperature drives a weaker correlation than risk-weighted factors in the long run.

Who do you think poses the most risk: someone who is running hot because they walked to the office in order to avoid public transit, or someone who habitually takes crowded public transit every day?

The sooner you incorporate this answer into your world view, the sooner you can move away from the SARS playbook in favor of the data-driven playbook, like Taiwan and Korea did early on in the pandemic.

Moreover, risk factors are going to change every single day - as will your risk tolerance. Yesterday, our best indicator was temperature. Tomorrow it might be if someone has Immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies in their blood.

Knowing that the next 18 months will be full of change, I recommend you pick your guiding star, and prioritize incorporating cloud-based software systems with open API’s that allow you the flexibility to adapt your approach.

Protect your front desk staff by creating a touchless check-in experience.

We’re adding a new element to security: whereas the goal of front desk workers used to be to welcome guests and make sure unexpected visitors were kept offsite, the same staff are now being asked to put themselves at risk of contracting a disease for no additional pay. It’s stressful and unsustainable. So, we’re making a better model. 

As the world returns to work, we’ll be helping top global brands manage the risk of allowing people on their premises, before, during, and after the time they are onsite. (If you'd like to learn more, get in touch with us.)

We recommend creating a contactless zone where contractors, visitors, and anyone not habitually on your premises prove their risk level to machines. This zone could include:

  • Putting the kiosks and the badge printers a few meters from the receptionists at a minimum.
  • Investing in automated ID checking technology so that people provide their ID to a machine, not a person.
  • Practicing common sense: if someone can’t touch an iPad, then the alternative shouldn’t be for them to hand their ID to a member of staff. 

How to judge biothreats to your company

In the Rebound phase, I believe that cultural norms will determine who will take the lead on safety vs. privacy metrics in each country, and how we determine biothreats as a result. 

  • In China, I expect that the Wechat / Alipay color coding system will converge with facial recognition technology provided by the likes of Hikvision and Sensetime to provide a real-time risk assessment for individuals looking to come onsite. (If you want a rabbit hole of fun, check out how these companies can recognize faces even when wearing masks.)  
  • In countries with strong state-like apparatuses, Bluetooth-led contact tracing initiatives will emerge and fail. These apps require that you keep them running in the foreground and the virus has shown a pesky habit of not respecting borders. 
  • In countries with low faith in the government and a long history of providing information to private parties (like the US) we should expect to see consumer brands lead the way in predicting risk levels. Google and Apple are collaborating with early movers like the Singapore government to develop native contact tracing technology. 
  • In countries with low levels of fraud and high levels of trust in the government (like Germany) we could easily expect to see widespread use of immunity certificates. 

There will be no single standard, so you’ll need to decide on the standards to adopt locally and how you’d like to store that data to prove that you’ve satisfied your duty of care. 

If you’d like to get in touch to discuss how we’re partnering with other tech companies to help companies like you judge the risk of people coming onsite, contact us.

The new normal in today's offices

The good news is that we’re all going to adjust to working in a coronavirus world. 

Many staff will be required to work remotely even past the re-opening of their offices because desk density will be too high.

There will be ‘aftershocks’ and ‘tremors’ of resurgence. 

We’ll become a bit more blasé about the virus as people adjust to the risk. 

People in countries with immunity certificates will secretly be desperate to get the virus so they can just get on with their lives. 

Some industries - like tourism - will be horrendously affected. (If you have $5 to donate to help feed elephants and their caretakers in Thailand, who are starving without tourists, please do). Other industries will rise. You know the dance. 

Here are our predictions.

  1. The new normal will be data-driven.
  2. There will be lawsuits against companies who don’t take adequate care to measure who is onsite at all times and what their risk level is.
  3. There will be a second wave of lawsuits for those who sacrifice data privacy compliance (GDPR, PDPA, etc.) for the sake of coronavirus testing.
  4. Working with flexible, cloud-based visitor management solutions will no longer be a luxury. It will be absolutely mandatory to prove that you know exactly who is onsite at all times and what risk they pose to your teams

Looking at the sites you manage, you probably already know who the staff members are that will want to sacrifice safety for efficiency. You also know the ones who will want safety above all.

It’s going to be a challenging conversation to figure out where to draw the line.

At Proxyclick, we work directly with people who are managing or manning front desks. If you’d like to informally benchmark yourself against others in your industry, or just talk about solutions to strengthen workplace security, our fully remote-working team is on standby to help you out. 

For more information on combating COVID-19 in the workplace now and in the future, visit our COVID-19 Resource Center.


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