Marylanders are coming back to the office. The summer will bring phased returns for employees of companies like T. Rowe Price, and the fall semester will see many schools return to full in-person classes. Many municipal offices have already made the shift.
But returning to the pre-pandemic office work isn’t as straight forward as it sounds. Just as confusion and contention surrounded the original shift to virtual work, many companies are now considering the best strategies for coming back to the office — and ruminating on how the pandemic may be changing their workplace permanently.
That’s where companies like The Verve Partnership, a Baltimore-based interior design firm, come in. Verve has spent the past month working with companies to help them understand the needs of their employees in a post-pandemic world.
Using a survey developed by Verve, companies can evaluate everything from what employees’ work from home setups currently look like to how often their employees want to come into the office in the future. The survey is intended to help companies understand how they can improve both their physical office space, as well as their office policies, ahead of a return to the workplace.
“It seems to be that we know people are expecting more flexibility, that that’s what they want. We know that there are a number of people that want to return to the office,” said Erin Deason, a senior associate at the firm and the survey’s designer. “What I’m anticipating is that we will get information that supports (these things).”
The survey also tackles elements of the return to the office that employers might not have thought of — like start times. While many workers are indicating that they’d like a few remote days each week, others are enjoying the flexibility to start their day either earlier or later.
Verve is even planning to look into how the pandemic may have affected workers’ perspectives on different corporate amenities (though questions about amenities are not included in the current return-to-the-office survey).
“Has their outlook on a shared gym facility changed? Would they potentially use a wellness or a meditation room more so than they would have before?” Deason said. “Someone may have sort of thought that to be a silly concept, and it might be very different now.”
Additionally, the question of safety still remains — even with many Marylanders already having received their COVID-19 shots, no vaccine is perfect. Some employers want to go the extra mile to make sure the virus isn’t being spread in the workplace.
While options like social distancing and physical barriers between desks remain, some companies have developed more high-tech alternatives.
Vision Technologies, based in Glen Burnie, has developed multiple return-to-the-office “solution sets” focused on helping employees feel safe and secure working in person.
The first is called the Screening, Protection and Tracing solution, and it provides offices with technology to screen COVID-19 symptoms, take temperatures, enforce social distancing and contact trace. At Vision’s own headquarters, people are restricted from entering the building if their temperature is too high.
The other, the Touchless Visual Communication and Collaboration solution, allows companies to use touchless controls to operate audio and video technology in conference rooms. It also includes digital signage that allows the company to communicate policies to employees and visitors in real time.
The reception to the products, which were first launched last summer, has been positive, even as concern about surface transmission has waned. High-risk workplaces, like nursing homes and hospitals, have invested in Vision’s solution sets, as have more traditional offices.
This technology is more cost-effective than assigning an employee to take temperatures or track who is coming in and out of a building, said Owen Meeks, vice president of marketing for Vision Technologies.
“A lot of companies have tried to go it alone, and they’ve put in manual processes,” he said. “(But) if you’re able to invest in something that automates a lot of those processes, you can save some money and realize a return on that investment.”
He also said the solutions are intended to be useful in the long term, even once employers are no longer particularly concerned about people spreading COVID-19 at work.
“Touchless is here to stay,” he said, citing pre-pandemic technologies like facial recognition and smart buildings.
Another health and safety issue that has been on employers’ minds for months is how to ensure their workers will get vaccinated, not only keeping themselves safe but also preventing spread amongst their colleagues.
Human resources consultant Kristina Griffin of Pinnacle HR Consulting said that this question, and the question of whether employers can mandate vaccines, are among the top HR concerns that businesses are currently struggling with. While many news outlets have reported that employers can mandate vaccines due to at-will employment laws, Griffin said very few of her clients have actually done so.
The first thing Griffin asks when her clients tell her they’re interested in mandating vaccines is, why?
“What’s the business case for doing it?” she asked. “We try to guide them through: why are they doing it, does it make business sense to do it, (and), first of all, why are you bringing people back to work? Because if there’s productivity and efficiency happening with people at home, why would you want to mandate people come back to work?”
She also tells clients that they have to think about how they will respond to an employee who flat out refuses to be vaccinated, but doesn’t qualify for a religious or medical exemption.
One of her clients does hope to mandate the vaccine; Griffin’s team has helped them work out how they will handle requests for accommodations, and drafted a statement about why they’re requiring the shot.
Those materials are being thoroughly reviewed by the company’s legal team — a must, Griffin said, for any business returning to the in-person work, even if they are not planning to mandate vaccines.
“There’s an array of considerations,” she said. “And I will say, the great thing about all of our clients is that they are taking their time to plan this return so that people don’t feel like the plug was pulled on them the same way when we had to shut down immediately.”