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The return-to-work challenge: Ensuring employees remain safe

Simone Fenton-Jarvis offers some advice on how companies looking to reopen their offices safely could do so, allowing employees to actually be safe and feel it too.

When it comes to the return to work, there are many obstacles businesses need to overcome, but the biggest is ensuring the safety of their employees. Ensuring you've done everything in your power not only has the potential to save lives but also gives you a more significant competitive advantage as your people will know that you truly care about them. Your people will remain healthy and engaged and they will dig deep at a time you need them most.

The global digital transformation over the last few months has confirmed to those who always placed faith in it, and convinced those who didn't, that technology is a lifeblood for the functioning of an organization. It should be no different when we return to a physical workplace, and technology should be used to make sure employees are safe and feel like it too.

There are three steps business should take to achieve employee safety with digital transformation at their heart. Firstly, organizations should be listening to their people. The second step is to use technology to ensure your people are safe, and the third and final step is using technology to make sure your business functions sustainably, both in the long-term fiscal sense and environmentally.

Getting back into the office

Before you can decide it's time to reopen your office and bring your employees back to the workplace, you need to make sure as a business you have listened to their fears and anxieties and taken every step reasonably practicable to ensure their safety.

Beyond encouraging face masks to be worn, implementing one-way systems and plexiglass screens, organizations should be investigating the technologies they can deploy to increase employee safety.

This doesn't have to be the expensive and futuristic technology that some are using, like thermal imaging which takes core body temperature from the person's tear duct. It can be a simple desk booking system to ensure people self-certify before attending the workplace; remaining socially distant when sitting at desks; sitting only at desks which have been sanitized; and if the worst-case scenario happens, ensuring contact tracing to allow people to get tested, isolate and prevent ongoing transmission.

The office should be for collaboration and connection; essential aspects for: well-being, innovation, teamwork, project work and more. We need people working together effectively. Where technology doesn't enable this, it's critical that the office environment caters for such tasks. For this collaboration to happen, our workplaces must take advantage of the technology available, such as blue light, UV light and fogging to deep clean surfaces and buildings, booking systems to ensure contact tracing and occupancy sensors to manage people clustering. Having these things in place is a great way to both protect your employees and show them that you're doing your bit.

Feeling safe within the office

Demonstrating to your employees that you are taking your duty of care seriously by utilizing relevant technologies will ensure your people are safe and feel safe.

There is a crucial link between technology and mental health, beyond the negativity surrounding screens and social media. Technology has the unique power to soothe many people through its efficiency, accuracy and strength. Therefore, combining this with a people focus and drive behind your return-to-work strategy, you will very quickly create an environment that employees feel safe in and are happy to remain.

If you can demonstrate a commitment to your employee's health, they will remain more productive. The two need to work in harmony; a half-hearted and isolating environment is expected to drive employees elsewhere, or they remain but are disengaged.

Sustainability

To make an environment people want to stay in, and feel safe being in, the technological investments you make need to be seen as an investment in your future. They're not for the short-term but should align with your values and the direction of your company.

For instance, if you were trying to promote flexible working, now is the chance to implement it more consistently. Aim for half your team to be in the office and half at home, which allows for employee flexibility, but it might also mean your safe space in your office. You are making it easier to seat people safely without investing in a larger office, and the costs which would be incurred with a move.

When I talk about aligning with values, the hottest and most significant trend at the start of the year and end of 2019 was sustainability. Every week it seemed another business was pledging to go carbon neutral -- or even carbon deficit in some cases. COVID-19 has become all-encompassing, but it doesn't mean other issues have vanished. We're already seeing face masks washing up in the ocean and plexiglass screens being bought by the truckload, but what happens when a vaccine is found -- where will it all go? If sustainability was essential to your organization in January, it will be again, so look at the ways technology and the process can work together to prevent damaging the hard work we've already done. We still need to be aware of the ecological impact our business decisions are having.

Ultimately, your employee safety should be your top business priority, and employing innovative technology is the best way to achieve this without sidelining any other goals you may have, or still do have. We need to create environments where people feel safe and are trusted to be responsible and do their jobs, to protect employees and the bottom line.

About the author

Simone Fenton-Jarvis is Workplace Consultancy Director at Ricoh and has over 13 years experience in property management, facilities management and workplace. Fenton-Jarvis believes an organization needs to put people first, and it's this which drives her strategies. Fenton-Jarvis's intention is to develop Ricoh's workplace brand, making sure that customers know Ricoh can offer full office services and consultancy for every need a business could have in reforming their workplace and culture.

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