How Swedish companies are planning their return to the office
Two questions on both employees and employers’ minds right now are, how and when will we get back to the office. “When” might be more difficult to answer, but companies in Sweden have now started to discuss the “how”. To get an idea what actions companies are going to take, both short-term and long-term, we have interviewed nine respondents in Sweden, who are all in some way responsible for the management or design of offices.
Is working from home the future?
When we spoke to the respondents during May, none of them had yet a set date for the return of their employees to their offices, as the decision would depend on the status of the virus and Swedish Public Health Agency recommendations. They all said that they will continue to investigate the matter further during summer. One respondent said that when they do return, they have discussed doing it gradually, utilizing only one-third of their desk capacity at first, then slowly increasing the staff numbers.
All respondents said that working from home has generally worked well. Employees feel as if they get more work done and have more free time as they save time commuting, but they do miss the social element of being in the office. One respondent highlighted that work is not only a place where work tasks are conducted, but also where interaction with colleagues makes employees feel part of a team. All agreed that within a very short period of time, the attitude towards remote working has changed, and they expect that in the future employees will probably want to work at home two to three days per week. However, not everyone has the resources to work from home comfortably, as was highlighted by one respondent who referred to a survey where approximately 50 000 of their clients answered a questionnaire about their working conditions at home. 36% had their own study for work, 21% had a dedicated area which wasn’t a room, while 42% worked from their dining room table or similar.
If remote work is the future, it raises questions about how companies can develop workplace cultural digitally, how more creative parts of the work process can function online, and how new employees will develop relationships with their colleagues.
Will the office change?
If the future entails more remote working, it implies that the occupancy of desks will decrease, leaving parts of the office under-utilized. Three respondents were thinking about reducing their office space. One said that they might decrease their office size to one third their present size, and they could envisage the same trend among their clients. But the focus seems to be more on optimizing than just reducing office space. One respondent relied on sensors to obtain data on how their office space is being used to be sure they make the right decisions based on real utilization. Some respondents also expect to see a trend towards shorter term-office leases.
In contrast, one respondent said it is too soon to determine how work practices will change when people get back to the office, as many employees may not want to continue working remotely. They believed that some employees are very keen to get fully back to the office after being at home for such a long time.
One respondent remarked that it is fine working at home on a project that is already in progress, but commencing a new project is far more difficult to do remotely. They suggested that creative areas in the office, not necessarily traditional meeting rooms, where employees can launch new projects, could be an answer. It is clear that while the acceptance of home working has grown substantially, the workplace will still play an important role regarding employees’ team working.
All respondents planned to facilitate social distancing in the workplace. Two respondents felt it worked well to simply ask employees to spread out since they were so few in the office at the moment, while another respondent addressed the challenge by refurbishing their office in a way that every desk was distanced so that they are all usable.
But four respondents had decided to use technology, specifically a desk booking solution, to implement social distancing. The feature to block desks next to each other was considered critical, with the not-bookable desks being physically blocked off in the office. It is expected that companies will only allow whole-day desk booking so that desks can be sanitized before any other employee uses them.
One respondent highlighted that booking a desk for the whole day would not work for their business, as their consultants tend to work only a few hours in the office, before attending client sites for the rest of the day. If no one could book the desk afterwards, it would lead to many un-bookable desks. A possible technical solution would be to mark desks as “used” to inform other members of staff that they should self-sanitize the desk before using it. Once confirmed that the desk has been cleaned, the desk would be available for booking again.
Regarding meeting rooms, cleaning after each meeting and reducing the number of seats were the main considerations mentioned by respondents. Technology can facilitate with room booking systems that ensure that the room is suitably large for all seated participants to be distanced from each other. One respondent also mentioned that many of their clients asked for physical markings to help employees to keep a distance from each other in the communal areas, such as by the coffee machine.
Touching requires cleaning
All respondents plan to increase their office cleaning and sanitization routines to focus on minimizing the spread of the virus and also instilling employee confidence. This would involve more thorough sanitation of items, such as door knobs and handles, elevator buttons, coffee and vending machines, printers, and office telephones.
Some companies are issuing every employee a keyboard and a mouse, so there is no sharing of PC peripherals in the office. One company was making disinfectant available at every desk so that employees could share keyboards and mice. Along the same line, one respondent said that many of their clients asked for hygiene stations where staff can obtain hand sanitizer, disinfection napkins, disposable gloves, and face masks.
One way to support cleaning staff is to minimize objects employees must touch. One respondent recommended removing shared touch screens and panels, which could be replaced with contactless technologies using mobile apps. Visitors could use a contactless visitor management system and not have to physically sign in. Sensor-controlled lights, soap dispensers and door openers will probably also become more common.
But the most critical requirement will be for facilities management to be very responsive to new office challenges which will arise every day, and to instill a sense of confidence in all employees that their company considers their welfare as paramount.