Companies reveal their plans for what work will look like when America returns to the office

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When Discover Financial Services Inc. decided to evacuate its 25,000 employees world-wide because of the COVID-19 outbreak, it did so with military efficiency in just two weeks.

Now comes the hard part. When and how does the financial-services giant bring its full-time workers and contractors back to work across the U.S., from Phoenix to New Castle, Del.?

“Bringing back people in waves, based on where they live and what they do, is unlike anything we’ve ever done,” Andy Eichfeld, executive vice president of human resources and administration at Discover DFS, +4.04% , told MarketWatch in a phone interview late Monday.

MarketWatch spoke to companies across the country in different industries to gauge their back-to-work plans, and what they shared provides a glimpse into significantly different work and commerce environments. Workplaces in the near future will likely feature employees wearing personal protective equipment such as masks — sometimes alongside new automation at manufacturing settings — with widespread medical testing and screening on-site.

See also: Welcome back, cubicles? Longtime Silicon Valley CEO says coronavirus could kill the open office

Desks will be more spread out and work schedules will be staggered so as to limit people in the office at the same time. Cubicles might replace open-air seating. Company visitors may have their temperatures taken and travel documented before they are allowed to enter. Meanwhile, the bar for business travel will be significantly higher because videoconferencing services have proved to be effective in bringing people together. (Facebook Inc. FB, +2.66% , for example, has called off all travel through June.)

“Things will return to normal in our personal lives, like going to restaurants, but things in business will change forever,” Box Inc. BOX, -0.37% Chief Executive Aaron Levie told MarketWatch in a phone interview.

Some businesses will look at the industries that have been operating during the pandemic for clues to how, and how not, to establish new practices. Kroger Co. KR, +0.21% , the world’s largest supermarket chain with $122.3 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2019, publicly shared a comprehensive in-house plan called “Sharing What We’ve Learned: A Blueprint for Businesses” this week that envisions reconfigured stores that minimize employee-customer contact through online orders, drive-through purchases, expanded pickup and delivery services, digital payments, exclusive early hours for seniors and other high-risk individuals, and plenty of in-store signs and audio messages.

The future of successful coronavirus response: Mass testing at work and in church and self-administered tests

“We want to share what we’ve learned and best practices with other businesses, so they can take steps now to develop protocols and procedures to reopen safely and continue to flatten the curve,” Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said in a video message explaining the report.

Others are taking base guidelines from business experts and fashioning them to meet their specific companies and needs. Eichfeld said that Discover is basing its plans partly on an American Enterprise Institute report from March, “National Coronavirus Response: A Roadmap to Reopening.” The report recommends a return to work based on three criteria: at least two weeks of declining infection rates in an area; hospital beds below two-thirds capacity; and broadly available testing.

Taking its cue from AEI, Discover’s customer-service workers will return to “lower-occupancy formations” with half as many seats to avoid the spread of airborne pathogens. Members of teams that closely work together, conversely, will continue to work from home, using digital-collaboration tools, according to Eichfeld, whose crisis-management teams meet daily.

What Discover and Kroger don’t provide, however, are specific timelines on the return of all employees and under what conditions — a reflection of the challenges facing conglomerates with far-flung operations. Discover, for example, employs 17,500 people at seven campuses in the U.S., covering seven states.

Despite pressure from some state leaders such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and local politicians like Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman (I) to reopen, companies are hardly barreling forward. Instead, they are depending heavily on the advice of local health experts before they gradually allow workers to return on-site — in nearly all cases, no earlier than June.

See also: These states are loosening economic shut-down orders

Companies large and small are navigating an obstacle course of patchwork federal, state, and local guidance while trying to maintain the safety of employees and minimizing liability. They’re also ramping up IT spending to accommodate more remote workers, perhaps permanently in some cases. Plans are fluid in large part because employers must take into consideration where people work and their tasks, says Joanna Daly, vice president of human resources at International Business Machines Corp. IBM, +2.77% , which employs 350,000 workers — 95% of whom currently work from home.

A vast majority of employees will continue to work remotely through the use of collaboration tools like Box, Zoom Video Communications Inc. ZM, -6.08% , Cisco Systems Inc.’s CSCO, +2.16% WebEx, Slack Technologies Inc. WORK, -1.77% , and Tactivos Inc.’s Mural. Researchers who require access to expensive labs and equipment are likely to wear masks.

The unpredictable nature of COVID-19, compounded by glacial testing and the absence of a vaccine, has put company executives in the delicate position of revamping operations while maintaining the health of thousands of employees scattered across the country.

Business in the Age of COVID-19: How the pandemic is affecting companies’ finances

“This is a journey, a transition, and we’re thinking about workers, work places through multiple lenses,” Mary O’Hara, chief human resources officer at Blue Shield of California, which employs 7,000 at 16 offices throughout the state, told MarketWatch in a phone interview. “There is no one flip-of-the-switch solution here. We have to build a playbook that is replayable through the end of year.”

Business-continuity plans generally aren’t good with events that require long-term recovery, Stephanie Balaouras, a vice president at Forrester and co-author of “Entering The New Normal: How To Safely Bring Your Workforce Back” , told MarketWatch.

“It is unlike anything any company has faced,” Balaouras said. “It’s not a natural disaster, a 9/11, or small-scale epidemic. This is a complicated crisis that will come in waves.” The April 20 report foresees seismic changes in how offices are configured (“they were not made for social distancing,” she says), manufacturing operations evolve, and companies approach business travel.

The playbook for most organizations such as Boeing Co. BA, -6.34% lean heavily on social distancing. The aerospace and defense company last week said it plans to stagger shifts, require face coverings, and install visual cues and signage so employees can keep their distance from each other, among other precautions. Boeing will provide personal protection equipment wherever physical distance cannot be maintained, it said.

See also: Boeing stock rallies after company says it will resume some aircraft-making

As retail outlets and office buildings change, perhaps permanently, in a post-coronavirus world, the tech industry is in no rush to return to work as it rethinks how it works on-site.

“Our work from home guidance will not be lifted just because government orders are removed; we will only reopen sites when we feel we are in the best position to welcome back team members safely,” Antonio Neri, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. HPE, +2.91% , said in a blog post Wednesday. “We will modify our sites to ensure physical distancing can be maintained, and we won’t all return at once.”

Tech leaders like Facebook Inc. FB, +2.66% CEO Mark Zuckerberg have taken conservative, long-view approaches. In an April 16 post on his Facebook profile, he said the company has canceled any “large physical events we had planned with 50 or more people” through June 2021. Some of those events instead will be held virtually.

In April, Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, +0.44% said it would begin testing of its front-line workers for COVID-19, and eventually all of its employees. The company declined to comment further on its back-to-work schedule.

Before the pandemic, tech startup Dialpad allowed its 400 employees to work from home on Tuesday and Thursday; now, it is likely to expand that schedule to four or five days a week, company CEO Craig Walker says.

“We might even halve our office space so people who do want to come in can share the same desk on a staggered schedule,” Walker, who previously helped create Alphabet Inc.’s GOOG, +0.23% GOOGL, +0.42% Google Voice technology, told MarketWatch.

Don’t miss: These 21 companies are working on coronavirus treatments or vaccines — here’s where things stand

Even federal agencies may shift from a tradition of office-anchored desk jobs that lean on legacy technology to a remote workforce weaned on videoconferencing, observes Box’s Levie, whose company announced a deal with the USDA Farm Production and Conservation on Thursday.

Redeploying employees has other wrinkles that go beyond simple social distancing:

• Child care: Shadiah Sigala, CEO of startup Kinside Inc., an online service that help companies place their employees’ kids (up to 5 years old) into day care, is currently working with essential services such as hospitals and grocery chains, and plans to expand to nonessential workers as states open for business. But it won’t be easy since 20% of day care centers are shutting down permanently. “It’s like trying to shove big demand through a thinning straw,” Sigala told MarketWatch.

• Office air quality and surfaces: Himanshu Khurana, chief technology officer of Honeywell Building Solutions, a division of Honeywell International Inc. HON, +0.66% , says it is working with enterprise customers to improve the air quality of commercial office space as well as increase the flow of outside air into buildings.

• Adopting best-practices policy: Box, among other companies, is consulting with experts on best practices for spacing out desks, the proper use of disinfectants, and other potential health measures.

“Distancing is getting a lot of air play, but we’re spending 90% of our lives indoors. The indoor environment has a profound impact on our physical well-being,” says Paul Scialla, CEO of Delos, a wellness real estate and technology company. Cushman & Wakefield CWK, +1.88% has deployed Delos technology to reduce particulate matter concentration in the air, and improve surface hygiene.

Still, there isn’t a silver bullet in bringing people back to work, which makes for an interesting debate within some companies.

Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock.com OSTK, +26.85% , an online shopping site based in Midvale, Utah, with nearly 2,200 employees, is in no hurry.

“It seems premature to bring people back,” he told MarketWatch in a phone interview. “We’ll wait for more clear direction from local government officials. Our businesses are running so well under work-from-home that we won’t rush to be back in the office too soon. We don’t want to spike the curve, and we have to take into account people with children at home while school is out.”

Others consider the face-to-face exchange of ideas essential, however, and never see a world without offices.

“Could we all successfully work remote 100% of the time in the future? Of course, we have proved that over the last few months,” Courtney Harrison, chief human resources officer at OneLogin Inc., says. “Do we want to? No. Our culture is built around diverse people and diverse office location vibes and that is what makes us who we are and keep things interesting. We like each other too much to want to be remote all the time.”

MarketWatch staff writers Claudia Assis and Therese Poletti contributed to this article.

Originally Published on MarketWatch

 

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