Business kept rolling at SUEZ North America despite pandemic stay-at-home orders this spring. Essential employees delivering water and wastewater service still had to operate their systems and monitor water quality, while the IT team ensured that remote working tools were functional for the rest of the company.
“It’s been a pretty wild ride over the last 11 weeks,” says Michael Salas, senior VP and chief information and digital officer, recalling one contingency plan for a possible Level Four emergency that would require live-in teams working in shifts and sleeping in RVs in the parking lot. (The plan was not executed.) Now, his next challenge begins: how to safely and productively bring 20 to 30 percent of SUEZ North America’s 3,000 office workers back to the workplace in the next few weeks.
“Some 75 percent of organizations are debating right now what is the best way to get their employees back to the workplace,” says Brian Kropp, distinguished VP of research at Gartner. Returning to the office will required collaboration among all departments — legal, risk management, IT, human resources and facilities — to come up with a cross-functional strategy.
IT executives will face their own new challenges dealing with a hybrid workforce of remote and in-office users. How do you support remote users and manage devices? What should your network look like? Is your private cloud infrastructure robust enough? Adding to the complexity, IT will be involved in gathering employees’ personal health information, office work schedules will fluctuate and executives may consider monitoring remote workers’ productivity.
Here are seven IT questions to answer when re-integrating employees back into the workplace.
How will IT help employees safely return?
Health and safety guidelines for the workplace vary from state to state, but many organizations are leaning toward the highest CDC safety recommendations. Many of those guidelines — hand sanitizing, temperature checks and social distancing — can be aided with technology. Some 58 percent of organizations plan to invest in smart personal hygiene devices, such as connected hand-sanitizer stations. More than a third (35%) plan to invest in infrared thermometers that can take employees’ temperatures from a distance, and 25 percent plan to invest in thermal cameras that can detect distancing between employees, according to a survey by Insight Enterprises.
Many organizations already use apps in the workplace to track employees using IoT sensors, badge swiping or via office Wi-Fi locations, and those vendors are stepping up to add health and safety features.
Insight is piloting in its own office a connected platform of IoT devices that includes thermal imaging cameras that monitor temperatures, smart hand sanitizers that send an alert when they need refilled, and social distancing cones that alert employees via mobile phone app if they’re inside social distancing guidelines.
“We’re deploying elements of this as we return to work,” says Mike Gaumond, senior VP and general manager, connected workforce division. He’s also seeing interest from theme parks and stadiums with large number of customers coming in, and companies that have a large number of employees returning to work.
In June, data science and health technology company Cognize launched a new solution that monitors social distancing, mask detection and body temperature using video, voice and biometric sensors. The solution was added to its situational awareness platform that already uses AI and cognitive learning to track crowds, group behavior and productivity.
How will IT collect and manage employees’ personal health data?
Some 60 percent of companies surveyed by Gartner plan to collect self-reported data from employees about their health status, over half are going to do temperature checks, about a quarter will add contact tracing capabilities and 22 percent will require employees to have COVID-19 test results before returning to the workplace, according to recent survey of 165 executives.
“Companies are going to have to rely on their IT teams to collect, manage and work with all the health information they’re going to be collecting from their employees,” Kropp says. “It’s a new area that IT executives have never been involved in. They’ll be working with enterprise risk, HR and other groups, but IT is going to be playing a big role.” The same goes for contract tracing, he adds. If implemented, IT will also have to manage the apps and data associated with it.
CIOs will have to get much more involved in making the workplace as contactless as possible to prevent virus spread, Kropp says. That could mean partnering with real estate executives on sensor pads on elevators instead of push buttons, automatic doors and light sensors, or finding contactless solutions for tech used in conference rooms.
More than a third of companies (36%) plan to invest in contactless sensors as employees return to the workplace, according to the Insight survey.
How will IT manage collaboration with a hybrid workforce?
Some companies look to make remote work permanent for their employees, but most companies are leaning toward a mix of in-office and remote work experiences. Gartner says its clients, mostly large firms that have little direct interaction with the public, expected as many as half their employees to work at home at least part time.
From a CIO perspective, “the hybrid workforce holds big implications when you think about collaboration,” Gaumond says. In the early days of the pandemic, companies ramped up video conference tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Webex to replace in-person meetings.
“But they aren’t actually leveraging the real capabilities of these collaboration suites,” such as true document creation, sharing, editing and management, he says. “There’s an opportunity to leverage these suites to work in a completely different way — and not just as a surrogate for an in-person meetings.”
Complicating matters further, video conferencing tools tend to work best when everyone is remote, “but what about when 25 percent or 50 percent is in the office and everyone else is remote?” Gaumond says. “Typically, the remote experience is significantly degraded. How do you change that to make it more effective?”
Even employees who return to the workplace will still use a lot of the virtual technology, Kropp says. “You might have two people back in workplace but they’re still going to video call each other even if they’re in the same building.” IT teams will have to test in-office virtual networks to ensure they can handle the significant increase in bandwidth that will be required.
Should IT monitor the productivity of remote employees?
Many companies are looking to understand the productivity and performance of their remote workers. In the last three months, about 25 percent of large companies told Gartner they have bought new software to passively monitor the workflows of their remote employees. Software is installed on workers’ laptops, sometimes without the workers’ knowledge, that track how fast they’re typing, take snapshots with the laptop camera to see whether they’re present, and monitor what screens they have open.
Proponents of the tools say it can help organizations understand what drives employees’ productivity, and they can then adjust employees’ jobs to make them more productive. But companies also run the risk of employees finding out they’re being watched. “There’s a whole set of HR-related issues tied up in how you are measuring and monitoring the performance of your remote employees without them knowing about it,” Kropp says.
How will you manage your own IT professionals?
Companies are exploring several return-to-work scenarios to help maintain social distancing, such as flex days where some employees may be in the workplace on weekends with two weekdays off, or shift work with some employees working in the early morning and others into the evening. CIOs will have to adjust the IT team’s schedules to support these workers, while finding time for system maintenance and upgrades without creating disruptions.
How will you manage potential conflicts with the CFO?
The CIO’s need to invest in new technologies to keep employees safe and meet the demands of a hybrid workforce is likely at odds with the CFO’s focus on maintaining as much liquidity as possible, so “expect real debates about what tech investments are necessary,” Kropp says. That debate includes whether the company should continue to equip remote workers with technology at home.
“Many companies are realizing that remote workers may be there for many months. How do we buy tech and spend money on people working from home? It’s a huge cost question, Kropp says. “Right now, CFOs are saying if people work from home we can save on real estate costs, which is true, but does working from home save money on IT costs?”
Procedures for returning to the workplace will continue to evolve as organizations slowly integrate employees back into the office, but the decisions made today on when to return and the safety of employees will have lasting effects.
“The decisions you make in the next three months on how you manage this return to the workplace will define your brand as an employer and an organization for the next three years,” says Liz Joyce, Gartner VP and advisory for HR. “How did you treat your employees during this period, what does that mean and how does that define you as an employer.”