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How to use tech to support social distancing in the workplace


Johannesburg, 28 Jul 2020
Read time 9min 50sec

As COVID-19-related restrictions are slowly easing around the world, many businesses are preparing to return to the workplace. However, infection risks remain high and employees are naturally nervous about increasing their potential exposure.

So, how do you create a workplace that not only supports social distancing and keeps people healthy, but also reassures them that it’s safe to come back to work?

Enable remote work where possible

The most obvious answer is not to return to the office at all.

Of course, this doesn’t work for every business or every employee – extroverts and harassed parents are probably desperate for a change of scene.

That said, it’s unlikely businesses will be able to force anxious or at-risk employees to put their health on the line in-office until a COVID-19 vaccine or cure is at hand. Those with limited real estate may also need to stagger the return of staff to avoid overcrowding by social distancing standards. Either way, some degree of remote work is likely to be the norm for many businesses moving forward.

Thankfully, the tools to support remote workers are readily available these days, particularly within the Microsoft stable. Below is very brief overview of the key elements you’ll need in place, and the Microsoft tools that provide the necessary functionality. (There are plenty of other solutions available as well – we’re just big fans of squeezing as much value from our clients’ existing Microsoft licences as possible.)

Key technology requirements for secure and effective remote work

  • Hardware and connectivity for remote workers (this one’s on you – Microsoft can’t help you here).
  • A secure collaboration platform (Office 365, SharePoint, Teams).
  • Iron-clad cloud security and data governance policies that cover remote access as well as mobile and personal devices (Microsoft Security Centre, InTune, Mobile Device Management).
  • A solid communications platform for sharing the latest policies, expectations, workplace changes and more (Microsoft Teams).
  • Forms and workflows to record illness, requisition equipment and confirm that staff have read and understood vital communications (Microsoft Forms, Power Automate).
  • Training courses/videos and assessment tracking to keep staff:
  • Comfortable with the tools they’ll be using;
  • Up to date on their compliance responsibilities;
  • Informed of security risks (anti-phishing, etc); and
  • Supported in their mental and physical health through hygiene suggestions, posture tips, work/life balance advice and more.

Create a safe(er) workplace for returning staff

For those employees willing and able to consider returning to the workplace, businesses have a legal and ethical duty to create the safest possible work environment.

There are several areas where technology can help in achieving this, including:

  • Wearables that monitor social distancing;
  • Implementing a workplace management strategy; and
  • Communicating that strategy effectively to your team.

Wearable proximity solutions

Available as wrist brands and on lanyards, these devices give a warning when the wearer is within two metres (or six feet) of a co-worker (also wearing a device). The various options available, such as Estimote, include the ability for wearers to push a ‘panic button’ to update management on their status. The system in turn can be used to identify and notify any staff members who have been in close contact with someone who has been flagged as ‘at risk’.

This technology is especially useful where staff are highly mobile: working in a warehouse or on a building site; however, when working in an office environment, other safeguards may be more appropriate.

Implementing a workplace management strategy

One thing we know for certain is that a traditional, static office environment is not going to cut it in the time of coronavirus. Agile workplaces are going to be a must in order to support the kind of strategic timing, seating and movement plans necessary to ensure safe social distancing.

Agile workplaces are going to be a must in order to support the kind of strategic timing, seating and movement plans necessary to ensure safe social distancing.

Our sister company, Essential, has been implementing agile workplace management strategies for a variety of businesses for many years. Here are a few ideas to consider when compiling your own social distancing “plan of action”.

Stagger start and break times

Managing the most common staff bottlenecks is going to be important for social distancing. One of the easiest ways to do this is to stagger arrival, departure and break times. This minimises the number of employees sharing lifts, stairwells and exits, and prevents overcrowding in pause spaces and kitchens.

Depending on the size of your business, you may need to embrace shift work to achieve this.

Implement desk and meeting room booking systems

Preventing staff from sitting cheek by jowl or clustering in meeting rooms is a challenge of slightly larger proportions, particularly if you’re dealing with limited floorspace. Modern, configurable resource booking solutions can be very helpful in maximising the safe use of the facilities that you have, by:

  • Enabling employees to pre-book a workspace securely from any device or browser;
  • Ensuring desks are never booked side-by-side unless there is sufficient spacing;
  • Limiting meeting room occupancy;
  • Repurposing meeting rooms as extra workspaces if necessary; and
  • Flagging desks with specific attributes like standing desks, accessible desks, multiple screens, multiple docking stations, etc.

Pro tip: A good desk booking solution doesn’t only help enforce social distancing. It also gives valuable peace of mind to employees by reassuring them that they have a safe, isolated workspace booked for the day.

Apply strategic seating policies

Above and beyond safe distancing, it’s also a good idea to apply a few strategic seating policies via your resource booking solution. For example:

  • Preventing critical employees from sitting in the same area to reduce the chance of them all needing to be quarantined at the same time.
  • Avoiding departmental clusters for the same reason.

Enforce sanitation windows

Sanitising workstations between users is vital to prevent the potential spread of infection. If you have cleaning staff on hand, consider using your resource booking tool to prevent successive bookings of the same desk, or enforce a short window between users to allow time for a deep clean.

If you don’t have a permanent cleaning team, a resource booking system can still help by reminding users to sanitise their workspace when they sign out of their desk for the day.

Automate parking assignments

With infection rates still sky high, it’s likely that people will be wary of using public transport for the foreseeable future. The result is going to be a big boost in road traffic and increased parking requirements at workplaces.

Just like with desks and meeting rooms, an automated resource-booking system can be invaluable in making the most of the parking space you have by:

  • Enabling “hot parking” – assigning bays dynamically on a daily/weekly pre-booking basis.
  • Staggering parking bays assigned to employees starting or leaving work at the same time.
  • Returning bays to the parking pool if employees:
  • Have not signed into their desk for the day (off sick or working remotely);
  • Leave work early; or
  • Are on leave.
  • Keeping security informed of who is where, and when (including visitors).

Track and trace potential infections

Chances are, no matter how good your health and safety protocol, someone, somewhere, is going to come to work sick. In this event, your resource booking tool can be invaluable in tracking and tracing any potential infection chains with a complete record of every desk, meeting room and parking space that an employee has used in recent weeks. It will also be able to tell you who else used the same facilities or was seated near enough to potentially be at risk.

Manage visitors

Employees aren’t the only people you need to keep safe on your premises. Visitors' movements also need to be managed for social distancing reasons. Consider using your resource booking tool to assign passes to restrict visitor numbers, pre-book meeting rooms and make appropriate parking available to ensure safe and easy entry and exit from your premises.

(Educating visitors on safety protocol before arrival is also important – more on that in a bit.)

Improving communication

The very best workplace management plan is completely useless without the buy-in of your entire team. That makes effective communication another vital component of health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s how to do it well.

Engage with employees on measures to make them feel safe

Consulting with your employees before finalising any workplace management plan is a great way to make them feel heard, and bring to light any specific concerns they may have that you hadn’t thought about.

Tools like Microsoft Forms are great for polling staff on their ideas and expectations for a safer workplace, and can also be used to gauge important metrics like:

  • How many people need/want to remain working remotely;
  • How many people plan to return to the office; and
  • How many people require parking on their return.

Communicate and educate employees on safety protocol

Once you’ve incorporated any employee feedback into your final workplace management plan, you need to communicate that plan to your workforce. Very few employees are likely to return to the office without knowing exactly how they’re being protected, first.

Communication of your new workplace policies – and checking that communication has been received and understood – is essential.

Here, learning management systems such as LMS365, which is integrated with Teams and SharePoint, can once again be invaluable by:

  • Informing employees of all health and safety measures in place;
  • Training them on any new tools and procedures (eg, resource booking) or personal responsibilities that they will have (eg, hygiene practices and use of PPE); and
  • Tracking their participation in the training and capturing their acknowledgment of understanding for peace of mind and/or liability purposes.

Prepare visitors prior to arrival

Visitors will also need to understand and abide by your health and safety rules while on your premises. For most businesses, Microsoft Forms is more than enough to:

  • Convey visitor procedures;
  • Securely capture any pertinent personal details (subject to your pre-existing governance protocol); and
  • Record consent to limit liability.

Pro tip: Industries with more complex visitor protocol may prefer using LMS365 for its comprehensive training capabilities.

Conclusion

Returning to the workplace is going to be a challenging adjustment for many. With the right tools and planning, however, we can ease that adjustment significantly, protect our most valuable assets (our people), and minimise the anxiety of returning employees.

Perhaps even more importantly, we can begin the transformation to a new and better “normal” that embraces the flexibility of the workplace of the future.

For more information on leveraging resource booking solutions and/or LMS365 and other Microsoft tools for social distancing and workplace agility, get in touch.

Editorial contacts
Tracey Hadfield (+27) 11 781 2323 Tracey.Hadfield@cloudessentials.com
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