As COVID-19 vaccinations race against new mutations and the pandemic is officially a year old, the glimmers of hope have enterprise executives around the world focused anew on one of their most unique challenges: bringing people back to the office. Even after the pandemic recedes into history, few expect the workplace to return to the way it was.

At Salesforce, for instance, the watchword is flexibility. “An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk on our Towers, the 9-to-5 workday is dead and the employee experience is about more than pong-pong tables,” Brent Hyder, president and chief people officer, recently wrote. When it’s safe to return, most Salesforce employees will be in the office just one to three days a week.

Still, uncertainty is palpable. The Salesforce return-to-work playbook lists five distinct phases, yet it cautions that “if an outbreak occurs in Phase 4, you might have to return to Phase 0 or 1. Maintain flexibility, and you’ll be on the right track.”

Alex Gorksy, chairman and chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, is taking a similarly agile approach to the future of not just work but life. A few days after his company’s one-dose vaccine gained US approval, Gorsky was being interviewed by CNN. He discussed the possible need for releasing booster shots—which sounded a lot like the need for a new way of thinking, too.

“You’ve always got to be preparing for the future, and frankly for the unknown,” Gorsky said.

Few enterprises are prepared to go as far as Twitter, though, whose policy is “Opening offices will be our decision. When and if our employees come back, will be theirs.”

The only certainty is how much uncertainty remains more than a year in. That’s where technology comes in.

Where, when and how to work?

A key factor driving the new workplace is the success of remote collaboration.

Some 83% of employers believe the shift to remote work has been successful, reports consulting firm PwC in its US Remote Work Survey. And employees have taken to it. Barbry McGann, executive director, Office of CHRO Solution Marketing at Workday, notes that her colleagues at the HR technology company went overnight from being fully in-office to fully remote. Now, with the workforce enjoying the flexibility and productivity gained, only 17% want to return

According to PwC, 87% of employees say the office is important for team collaboration, and 68% of executives say a typical employee should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain a distinct company culture.

“We absolutely still see the office as being an essential location where we innovate, co-create and collaborate together,” Jane Muir-Sands, IBM vice president of Global Real Estate and Operations, said. “People are missing that interaction, that human dimension and still highly valued collaboration.”

Yet questions for employers and employees remain, even after the pandemic will have passed: Where to work? When to report? How will we be organized? Every enterprise must answer clearly and often to overcome the greatest hurdle to returning to work—employee trust. Most employees expect to work in less dense offices and to be assured of safe and healthy spaces.

“Make sure people understand that the workplace will be a little different, but that they will have adequate resources,” said Dr. Marleece Barber, chief medical officer at Lockheed Martin, during an IBM event last year on the future of work. “If you communicate upfront and honestly, even if some of the advice is frightening, employees will lean in and help, especially if they think you have their well-being as a priority.”

A hybrid way of working

This is the hybrid office, a way of working somewhere between fully remote and fully in-office. Offering flexibility and safety that build on the lessons of the pandemic, it combines roles that can be done better remotely with an office environment that brings employees together in new ways and for special purposes.

Perhaps people will work remotely when they need quiet time, and the office will operate more as a conference center or hub for collaboration, culture building and nurturing new hires. Maybe there will be fewer dedicated desks and more socially distanced common spaces, even outdoor spaces, or rotational schedules that limit office headcount. Health checks and vaccine passports could be required and standard protocols in place for responding to an ill or exposed colleague. New forms of wellness support might become a valued employee perk.

Whichever way the workplace evolves, it’s likely to be driven by technology. Executives during the pandemic have become more trusting of what technology can do, and they are pushing ahead with digital transformation. A vaccine “allows us to return to perhaps a bit of a more new normal,” Ginni Rometty, IBM’s former chief executive officer and executive chairman, said during a CNBC interview. “But a number of these things in the hybrid way of working I believe will remain, and the digital acceleration will continue because people have now seen what is possible.”

In creating the hybrid office with our mix of workspaces and styles, digital acceleration can help us create safe spaces—safe in terms of health, but also safe for team building, creativity and innovation. That’s what the hybrid workplace is all about.

“Applying AI models and applications is especially useful in this context, where there are so many different sources of information businesses must consider, and every aspect of the situation is in flux,” said Bob Lord, senior vice president of Worldwide Ecosystems and Blockchain at IBM. Here, Lord presents the vision for IBM Watson Works, a suite of applications and AI capabilities that provide data-driven insights for employers.

Prioritizing employee wellness

The heart of the suite is the return-to-workplace advisor, an AI- and blockchain-powered command center and communications hub. A management module helps analyze worksite and community risk data in real time to help identify locations where conditions have been met for returning to work. A virtual assistant helps employees self-report their health status and answers questions about the pandemic and workplace policies. IBM Digital Health Pass adds a way to verify the health credentials of anyone entering the workplace.

To manage facilities and optimize space allocation, a continuous data stream from Wi-Fi access points, cameras and other IoT sources help monitor space usage in offices, factories and warehouse. Thus, managers can use Watson Works to quickly reallocate spaces and designate no-go zones while monitoring crowding, social distancing and mask wearing. Meanwhile, employees can screen themselves and then reserve a desk or work point before they come in. This helps ensure social distancing and triggers cleaning to prep the space for the next use.

Health protocols can be updated seamlessly across the system as local or global rules are altered. And if anyone does get sick, an employee care management module fosters safety through digital contact tracing for employees voluntarily opt-in.

“This pandemic will certainly not be the last time there’s an outbreak of some sort or a crisis where companies need to shut down and help employees manage,” said Liz Schnitter, product manager for IBM Watson Care Manager.

Safe-space protocols to reduce risk

A major mid-Atlantic university is among those using the facilities technology to track and manage tasks to safely reopen 250 buildings and thousands of spaces. During the pandemic, an incident-response system automatically links events to work tickets for resolving issues. And special mobile alerts flag work orders for building sets aside to quarantine students.

Technology notwithstanding, successful return to work depends on employees believing that employers have their best interests at heart. Experts on the front lines advise full transparency when it comes to the hybrid office: honest and open communications, learning from employees and keeping them informed of your plans.

“We’re going to continue to learn and shift as things change in our environment, because they are changing,” said Adam Glauberg, global head of Global Health Services Operations at Johnson & Johnson. “Our employees need to hear that we continue to learn and adjust with them with their best interests in mind.”

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