What HR tech will you use to bring staff back safely?

Smart systems for maintaining commercial viability and worker wellbeing will be an integral part of the post-COVID workplace. From the May/June 2021 issue Rob Gray explores some of the options.

It will be a long time yet until the dust truly settles following the impact of the pandemic. Many employees may never fully go back into the workplace, having found satisfaction and increased productivity working from home in roles that allow them to do so. But millions have or will return, either because their organisation or nature of their work demands it, or for social or practical preference.

Given that COVID-19 is far from being eradicated, HR teams have a sharp focus on their responsibility to ensure employee safety. And here, technology plays a fundamental role.

Ensuring employee safety on the return to the workplace:

People vs technology: managing technological change

Employees need to know they're in safe hands

How technology can be used to protect and enhance mental wellbeing

“As restrictions ease, we are welcoming more of our people back into our COVID-secure buildings, if they find it easier or better to work from our offices,” says Danny Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva.

“We are staying grounded in the data, following government guidance and will always provide a safe space to work in our buildings for people who need it. Our focus continues to be on the safety and wellbeing of our people, customers and communities.”

Among the tech solutions Aviva is using are a desk booking tool and access control system for workplace mapping; Microsoft Bookings, a scheduling tool that’s part of the Office 365 suite for space booking and managing capacity in workplaces; and live COVID FAQs on an employee ‘coronavirus hub’.

This is supported by measures including the ability to use company access control cards for within-office contact tracing if required; an active workplace control team; weekly lateral flow testing (LFT) in offices and at home, and check-in codes in offices.

Satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat is going through a procurement exercise for a desk booking system designed to allow safe entry when the team return to work. This will allow people to book a desk via their phone or web browser up to 12 hours in advance and sit with their teams, as well as booking other facilities such as space in a cycle rack or a shower cubicle.

According to Helen Bailey, vice-president, global real estate, facilities and health & safety at Inmarsat, the software will remind employees of the COVID rules, i.e. do not come in if you feel unwell, hands, face, space, etc, and remind them again on the morning of the desk booking.

If users do not tick that they feel well, the desk will be cancelled and released back into the system. The software will also generate a map of the floor that shows how to get to the desk and include a feature on what to do if you feel unwell, either outside or inside the building. This will be supported by increased touch point cleaning and sanitiser stations across the floors, information screens in reception and people assigned to ensure overcrowding in the lifts is avoided.

Information services company Experian is also devoting plenty of thought to COVID-safe solutions. “Our ways of working have changed significantly since the last time many of our employees stepped into an Experian office over 12 months ago,” says Rachel Duncan, director of HR at Experian UK&I.

“But with a return on the horizon, it’s essential that they feel comfortable when it does happen later this year. As well as continuing to closely follow the government guidelines, we’ve adopted the use of innovative technology, such as cloud booking systems to manage office capacity and QR codes for COVID checks, which will help provide a safe and productive working environment for our employees to operate from.”

There’s a great deal to think about. Fortunately, there’s some helpful information around. The CIPD’s COVID-19: returning to the workplace is a concise guide to getting some of the basic decision-making right but of course, with many suppliers in the marketplace, deciding on which solutions to implement can be daunting.

Some suppliers do however publish some useful papers of their own which provide useful tips and insights, such as Space Connect’s A COVID-safe way of returning to the workplace and Quinyx’s Burden or benefit? How technology is helping inspire positive change. The latter claims that global companies managing deskless workers during the pandemic were either over-staffed by 30% or under-staffed by 16%.

“Where workplace strategies were usually the reserve of just the facilities management team, what COVID has done is bring HR, facilities, property and IT teams together to agree holistic policies on COVID-safe return to office strategies,” says Matt Makan, channel partner manager at Space Connect.

Technology solutions available through companies like Space Connect include contract tracing functionality able to drill down into who is at greater risk based on whether they have been in the same meeting, or sat at the same desk, as someone who later tests positive for COVID-19; desk availability combined with social distancing measurement; real-time space usage metrics; and chatbots for FAQs.

It also has workplace mapping that allows employees to book desks and meeting rooms from real-time interactive floorplans, search for and locate colleagues and see in real time where the busiest areas are so they can be avoided if necessary.

“The key thing about social distancing is the ability to change it in line with government advice,” adds Makan. “Space Connect addresses this by directly coupling it with desk availability. Simply and easily managed, available desk stock and associated distance between workspaces is controlled.”

To manage on-site attendance businesses can place QR codes on desks, outside meeting rooms, or at reception to enable booking, check-in, and check-out using a mobile device. Apps can also be installed on employees’ devices that can detect a docking station connection and automatically check them in.

While video conferencing is doubtless here to stay, there is also technology that can be used to make face-to-face meetings safer. For example, tools that can dynamically change room capacity as required to adhere to social distancing policies.

HR practitioners are more mindful than ever of the need to reassure employees, considering the stresses and challenges thrown up by the pandemic. Recent research conducted for Group Risk Development (GRiD), the industry body for the group risk sector, found that of the four in five employees (79%) who currently have health and wellbeing concerns, stress and anxiety is the biggest issue for almost two thirds (62%). COVID-related factors were involved in many cases.

“COVID has delivered an existential blow to people, not only has their working environment changed but their home and personal environments as well,” observes Mike Pilcher, chief sales officer at Condeco, a provider of workspace management and resource scheduling software.

“HR professionals are striving to meet not just the needs of how to get people back into the office safely, they are also working to support their mental and physical wellbeing, and their perceptions of how the employer is treating them.

“Workspace management software is being leveraged by HR professionals to get people back to work, and to empower them to work from the location they will be the most productive. Employers reduce space, save money, empower worker productivity, and
workers gain flexibility and use the office for socialisation and collaboration.”

Employees returning to the workplace are placing their trust in employers to look after them. Much of that responsibility falls on HR’s shoulders and whatever approach your organisation takes, technology will be involved to some degree. 


This piece appears in the May/June 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.