Getting back in the desk chair and transitioning back to the office

This year has seen changes no one could predict 12 months ago in terms of how the workplace not only needed to adapt, but in many cases was rendered unnecessary. The public sector has had the biggest challenge in the last few months, striving to care for people suffering from Covid-19 and keeping the country moving (but staying at home) at the same time. Many office-based public sector workers will have switched to working from home like the rest of the U.K. workforce, but with the lockdown easing and more people returning to the office, what needs to be considered to make this move as safely as possible?

A part-time office strategy

For many organizations, maintaining social distancing in the office or workplace environment is next to impossible. Desks positioned close together or small meeting rooms mean keeping every member of staff two meters apart at all times might just not be feasible. One option to resolve this, and which may become the new norm across many countries, is a part-time system where only 50% of employees are in the workplace at the same time. Some employees may become permanent home workers, but a part-time option will be more likely for many organizations, as it gives everyone the opportunity to interact with colleagues in person a few days a week.

However, implementing this system may prove trickier than it sounds. For example, one assumption is that most employees today would need to take equipment home to do their work for those few days of the week. Laptops are the most obvious example, and most people are already used to carrying them to and from their office. But what about monitors? If you spend most of your day looking at a computer screen to work, many organizations will have monitors in the office where employees can connect their laptops and work from both screens, or just the larger one.

But if employees are now going to work from home a few days every week, should they be expected to only work using the smaller laptop screen? If they want a monitor, they would struggle to take this to and from work, so they’d need a screen permanently at home in addition to the screens in the office. Does the organization need to invest in these for all employees? This could get expensive very quickly, but it also cannot be assumed everyone has another computer screen at home they can use.

Making the workplace work

While a part-time strategy certainly makes social distancing easier, it still requires employees to be in the workplace during the week. To keep Covid-19 from spreading in offices, measures to reduce the equipment and surfaces being touched by employees is crucial. IT equipment such as keyboards and mice don’t tend to be shared, but the rise in hot desking is going to prove a huge obstacle to returning to work. Any organization reliant on this is going to have to rethink their office space. With fewer employees in the office together at any one time, hot desking may not be required if departments can arrange a basic seating plan for each day with set employees in the office. But unless there’s an individual desk for every single employee, measures will still need to be implemented to ensure everyone adequately cleans and disinfects the desk they used before they leave. Fewer employees in the office may also enable some departments to remove some desks to create more space between workers.

Other communal areas and equipment will also need to be considered. Conference or meeting rooms will need to have limits as to how many people can use them to allow for social distancing. Tables and chairs in these rooms will need to be regularly cleaned throughout the day. Kitchen areas will need strict protocols in place for general use and cleaning, such as ensuring lunchtimes don’t overwhelm the space available, and no food or utensils are shared between colleagues.

Even equipment such as the printer will need to be reevaluated—many employees will print, photocopy, or scan something at least once a day, and often these actions require pressing buttons or a touchscreen on the machine. Senior management teams will need to consider these little things before they can let employees back into the work environment.

Rethinking your technology

Changes to the physical environment can impact the required technology—both hardware and software—and the security measures to be considered. Say, for example, an organization with outdoor space chooses to let teams hold meetings outside, as being in the open air makes it harder for the virus to spread. Many public sector organizations deal with sensitive information, such as medical records or court case details. Security risks would need to be evaluated for holding meetings outside, where other people external to the organization—or even just external to a particular department or team—may be passing by. For example, would all staff with laptops need to be provided with privacy screen filters (if they haven’t done so already)?

Another challenge will be hygiene, not just of physical objects, but of computer systems. Virtual private networks (VPNs) are one of the easiest methods to enable employees to access internal systems remotely, and many employees have relied on them for the last few months. However, to avoid old legacy technology piling up over years, IT departments are encouraged to practice good cyber hygiene, and ensure any systems, applications, and data that are no longer used are removed. VPN access should be disabled if it’s no longer needed, as it can provide a gateway for hackers into an organization’s systems. But if an organization continues to have employees working remotely some or all of the time, VPN access might have to remain in place. Disabling it should therefore be considered on a case by case, or possibly department by department, basis.

Coronavirus has impacted countries around the globe more than any of us could imagine, and now that we are starting to get to grips with it, organizations need to carefully consider how to get public sector employees back to a semblance of normal. But with the potential for a second wave on the horizon, the workplace and work etiquette cannot simply return to the way it was before.

Sascha Giese, Head Geek, SolarWinds

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