Reworking Work: IBM’s Post-Pandemic Workforce Strategy

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There is much we don’t yet know about how the future work environment will look and feel as we move through and beyond this pandemic.  There is one thing we know for certain: We will not be returning to business as usual. Everyone will be conducting work differently. Whether working in an office, a retail establishment, medical facility, factory, a farmer’s market or from home.

In my role at IBM I am privileged to work with the senior leaders of our clients around the world. What I hear from them is that they are coming out of full crisis mode and are readying to operate in new ways. They are aiming to not only grit their way through this moment in time but use it as an opportunity to emerge stronger. To do so, they are seeking safe and effective approaches to bring professionals back into the economy.

While the CDC’s latest guidance on reopening workplaces shows the focus being paid to this new phase of the pandemic response, at IBM we believe this will require reworking the way we think about how and where we work.  A recent survey from the IBM Institute for Business Value, polling more than 25,000 U.S. adults, found changes in views towards transportation, shopping, telemedicine and remote working, and that nearly half of those surveyed believe that employers should maintain social distancing in the workplace.

Since mid-March, IBM has had 95% of our global workforce working remotely across 175 countries. To determine the best path for bringing professionals back into IBM or client offices, we have brought together leading thinkers across the IBM company and developed a data-driven, evidence-based set of Global Return to Workplace Guidance.

This process lays out a set of principles, which are being used to serve IBM and our clients. The guidance is structured in three “waves” defined by criteria, which takes into account local government directives and conditions, employee roles, the availability of testing and tracing, employee sentiment, and more. As professionals return to the office, a number of new workplace norms can then be put in place to ensure the health and safety of employees, partners, clients – and their respective families. This includes redesigned office layouts, traffic flows and collaboration models.

A clear and carefully developed process is critical not only to address the spread of COVID-19, but also to ensure that employees feel safe and remain productive. A new Washington Post-IPSOS poll shows that close to 60 percent of Americans working outside their homes are concerned about COVID-19 exposure.  We hope that our comprehensive checklists and considerations will reiterate our priority on health and safety to ease concerns.

You can learn more here and below about the principles we have established for IBM and our clients, and how we’re putting them into pBridget van Kralingenractice. They include the principles IBM has adopted, the questions we have asked ourselves and the readiness checklists we’ve developed.

While every organization has different needs and considerations, I hope that IBM’s key learnings and recommendations will be helpful to leaders in business and government as they look to rework how we work.

Bridget van Kralingen
Senior Vice President, IBM Global Markets


Beyond the Lockdown

How IBM is planning a safe return to a productive workplace

Even as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to varying degrees around the world, it is important to plan for a return to normal—albeit a different normal. Governments in some regions continue to relax stay-at-home orders. And among those that still maintain lockdowns, thoughts are turning to how best to manage the inevitable loosening of restrictions. The world is looking for a path to safely reopen business, educational institutions, and governments to get people safely and productively back to work.

Organizations around the world have experienced different sides of the pandemic. Some organizations have employee populations that, like IBM’s, have been able to work from home relatively easily; others have had to shut down operations in whole or in part. Organizations need employees to be able to safely work on site. At IBM, we have had the privilege of supporting and enabling many of them in their time of need, while planning for what lies ahead for our clients and our own teams.

Learnings from IBM’s own experience

At some point, workforces around the world will begin returning to work locations. And this will not be a simple flick of a switch from “off” to “on.”

As a company with a sizable and widely distributed workforce, IBM has experienced first-hand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What we have learned while planning our return to a different normal may be helpful to others. Here, we share our clear set of principles and initial plans for wider application.

The clear set of principles we have defined and the initial plans we have mapped can be widely applied. With that in mind, this report is our attempt to share what we know from our own experience and the experiences of our clients, with the aim of expediting other’s planning processes.

Many areas will continue to experience a high susceptibility to infection and new outbreaks. Communities will still struggle with limited testing availability to detect new infections. We cannot assume robust contact tracing will be used widely at this point.

Even so, many countries, states and communities will begin phased lifting of stay-at-home orders and start to reopen their economies, and we all need to be prepared now. Here is what IBM is doing and why.

Our first step comprised three specific objectives:

  1. Evaluated locations that can be reopened to accommodate workers beyond employees performing essential work onsite that could not be performed remotely.
  2. Provided a safe workplace that applied public health authority guidelines, such as those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, government directives, and our own policies and standards.
  3. Solidified policies and plans for a measured and phased return to work locations. This meant defining a series of waves of returned workers, as well as necessary exceptions and accommodations.

To go deeper, we developed several guiding principles to steer specific decisions.

Principles for returning to the workplace

  1. Base decisions on five primary considerations:
    • What guidance or criteria have been provided by local government?
    • What does local clinical and population health data indicate? For example, has there been a sustained and significant deceleration in new cases as measured by the doubling rate (such as confirmed cases doubling in 15 days—or more or less frequently)?
    • What are other local companies doing, especially those with whom you may be conducting business?
    • What is the prevailing view of your workforce toward returning to work locations?
    • How available are public transportation, schools, camps, daycare and other services essential to your workforce?
  2. Base the return of employees in pre-defined waves using data-driven, evidence-based practices and policies.
    • During Wave 1, plan on the vast majority of employees continuing to work from home.
    • Consider carefully the criteria for the initial wave of employees to return, determining if they will experience substantial productivity or innovation benefits from being on site, even while wearing masks and social distancing.
    • Permit employees in at-risk groups, or those requiring flexibility, to continue working from home.
  3. Carefully assess the market-specific health and policy landscape to determine future waves of returning employees.

With these principles in mind, we are sharing our plans for Wave 1 of the return to workplace.

Preparing for Wave 1

Our plans call for our first wave of workers to begin to return once COVID-19 cases decelerate, and wheReturn to Work fIgure 1n both public health authority guidelines and IBM global policies and standards are met. We anticipate Wave 1 beginning sometime in May or June. We used a simple decision tree to help bring the right elements together (see Figure 1).

We conducted extensive reviews to determine how to plan for employee and visitor safety on site. For example, many jurisdictions still require all employees and visitors to wear masks. So we had to answer these questions: “Should we provide masks? If so, do we have enough? How will we distribute them? What about masks for onsite visitors? How will we create an experience for visitors and employees that is safe but also not cumbersome?

We know we’ll have to adjust workstations and common areas to permit safe working distances. Building services will need to change: enhanced cleaning, increased air ventilation, and modified delivery of food services, among others.

We’re assuming we’ll need at least 50% more area per individual workstation in our new office layouts for social distancing. We’re revising our protocols for the use of elevators, restrooms and site transportation. Some adjustments may be straightforward, such as encouraging the use of stairs in lieu of elevators.

Redesigned traffic flow will need to eliminate congestion at site entrances and natural queuing points. In cafeterias, we’ll provide barriers between servers or cashiers and customers, touchless transactions, and floor markers to delineate distancing.

We have identified some of the new workplace norms we’ll have to establish. For example, all sites will require on-site health screenings for clients and partners that enter the campus or building, and daily health pre-certifications for our employees, which includes at-home self-screening and temperature checks prior to going to an IBM or client site.

These new workplace norms will also include a change in how our employees collaborate and work. We’ll look to limit the frequency of in-person meetings, including new requirements for number of on-site participants. Our client briefing centers, auditoriums, training rooms and large conference rooms will likely remain closed for a period of time as we find new ways to accomplish our business objectives.

We’ll continue our support—technology-wise and culturally— for most of our employees who will continue to work from home, and we have established clear guidelines for deciding who is eligible to return, and when (see Figure 2).

Return to Work Figure 2

Preparing for Waves 2 and 3

Advances in COVID-19 treatment, together with a significant scaling of testing and contact tracing, will permit a second wave of employees to return to work locations. For employees who return, we expect the work environment will be quite similar to Wave 1—masks still required, for example, and social distancing observed; travel restrictions in place based on local conditions.

Client-facing employees may be able to resume in-person client interaction based on whether or not the client is ready to receive them. We anticipate, though, that most employees will continue to work from home during this phase.

Significant improvements in testing, tracing, treatment, and healthcare facility capacity will enable most employees to return in a third wave to work on site. Some will be able to work on site regularly, others on an as-needed basis. Our travel restrictions will likely reflect increased flexibility, and most of our client-facing professionals will return to client work, assuming the clients are prepared to receive them.
Returning employees in this wave will encounter the same health and safety protections as previous waves, and many of the new working norms will have become standard procedure. Some employees will continue to work remotely depending on personal and business needs.

Even as we plan for successive waves of getting back to normal, awareness needs to be maintained that in some areas, a sudden virus resurgence could require that we pause, or even reverse, the return of employees to the workplace. We’ve built our plans and policies to accommodate that contingency.

Download the full PDF below to access the checklists we’re using for our Wave 1 return. They may help your organization as you think through and plan the return of your workforce to what lies ahead.



Media Contact:
Laurie Friedman, IBM

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