How technology will enable a return to offices and hybrid work

New investments have the potential to create better workplaces beyond Covid-19, according to CB Insights

Female entrepreneur explaining new working strategies to team post-pandemic reopen. Business professionals having a meeting in the creative office after lockdown.

New investments in technology to help transition employees back to in-person work have the potential to create healthier and more productive workplaces, even after the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, according to a new report.

As millions of people are vaccinated against Covid-19 around the world, employers are looking ahead to a return to offices. But two out of three workers in the US still feel uncomfortable returning to the workplace, according to a Qualtrics study. Employers face heightened responsibilities for worker safety and well-being if a return to offices is to succeed.

US research firm CB Insights highlighted what technologies and approaches it expects in offices in the months to come based on analyses of earnings transcripts, web search behaviour, new patents and venture capital funding trends, among other indicators.

Overall, the firm found that “while its features might change, the office remains a place of connection and innovation that is hard for companies to replicate with a fully remote workforce”.

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In the lobby

The “first point of contact — and first line of defence”, office building lobbies will be overhauled to protect workers from Covid-19, according to CB Insights. It predicts entry criteria could be tightened to include set employee schedules to avoid overcrowding, health indicators like temperature checks and contact tracing.

Covid-19 could become a seasonal or cyclical virus, so ongoing data collection of an employee’s health “could enable more targeted initiatives to improve the overall health of the workforce and, as a result, improve overall productivity”.

A QR code to gain access to one’s workplace may become more commonplace. In China, for example, a QR code-based “immunity passport” integrated into super apps like WeChat and Alipay has already been introduced in at least 200 cities. Individuals using Alipay’s Health Code fill out a form in the app and the software uses big data to generate a QR code depending on a user’s contagion risk. Those who are designated green are able to travel freely, while yellow or red indicate suggested one- or two-week quarantines, respectively.

Going up

Elevators are a tough hurdle for a pandemic that has been largely addressed through social distancing in most parts of the world. CB Insights found that “low-tech solutions” still prevail, like visual cues such as stickers on the lift’s floor to limit capacity as well as staggered entry times to curtail crowding.

While tech-based solutions are less common, the firm pointed to foot-operated elevators in Thai malls to minimise contact with buttons and an ultraviolet sanitation solution from Ashla Systems that uses hospital-grade UVC rays to kill pathogens in empty elevators.

A “handful” of other companies are developing gesture technology so that office workers might avoid touching buttons at all, according to CB Insights. For example, Ultraleap’s virtual touch product Stratos uses ultrasound technology to create mid-air haptics and sensors equipped with infrared lights to track hand movements, providing users with a virtual tactile response to their gestures. It can be adapted to button panels in elevators but can cost upwards of $7,500.

At your desk

Many organisations are mulling a hybrid model, with teams coming into the office for a few days a week or a few key days a month, according to the MIT Sloan School of Management Review. In the first phases of returning, businesses may look at rearranging workspaces and reducing occupancy by as much as 50-70 per cent as some employees continue working from home, CB Insights found.

The firm identified several start-ups like Density, Staqu, Outsight, Zensors and VergeSense that are developing “spatial intelligence and people-counting tech”.

VergeSense uses sensors to monitor occupancy, sends alerts when too many people are in a space and creates daily reports to aid in social distancing. After raising $9M in Series A funding in May 2020, the company said it expected a 500 per cent increase in sales bookings quarter-on-quarter (QoQ).

Such solutions “can help businesses plan their return-to-office strategies and monitor them in real time when certain areas in the office reach maximum capacity”.

Employees may feel physically safer with checks in place, but privacy will likely come to the fore with increased tech monitoring employees’ every move, CB Insights cautioned. Some start-ups are addressing this. Zensors uses facial blurring and Density does not use any personally identifiable information to maintain privacy.

In a meeting

“In-person collaboration will undergo a transformation,” CB Insights found, as a result of an increasing number of remote workers, and an in-office presence that will still need to accommodate social distancing. For now, expect Zoom conference calls to be the norm, but the study found there are some exciting tech tools in development that will make collaborating from afar a bit more productive.

For example, Yac offers a voice-based chat tool that integrates with Slack so that teams can communicate. Miro, a San Francisco-based digital whiteboarding platform, builds customisable software to help teams collaborate across a variety of use cases from meetings and workshops to brainstorming sessions. “Miro captures notes and saves whiteboards, which could be more effective than in-person marker sessions where work gets erased,” according to CB Insights.

The company has reportedly seen a surge in use during the pandemic and already serves 80 per cent of the Fortune 100, including Netflix, Salesforce, PwC and Spotify.

In the break room

CB Insights predicts corporate cafeterias will stay closed while break rooms will need more frequent cleaning that may make them less popular throughout the day.

This is opening up opportunities for start-ups focused on workplace lunch programmes that deliver individual meals and that “can scale up or down based on the employees in the office that day, accommodate a wide range of dietary preferences and restrictions and help reduce food waste”.

Smart vending machines are also set to become more popular as they don’t rely on humans for food service and can handle their own restocking based on sensors and data collected.

Talking to HR

A more decentralised workforce will put an even greater focus on human resources, which will be relied upon to coordinate remote training programmes and professional development.

Augmented and virtual reality tools are mature enough to be useful in this regard. CB Insights highlighted start-up Mursion which teaches sales skills through interactions with avatars in VR to simulate and analyse practice conversations. Vantage Point uses VR to train employees in topics surrounding diversity, equality, inclusion and sexual harassment.

Another area of focus will be HR tools that measure team engagement and manager effectiveness.

Lattice is a performance management platform that allows teams to visualise and track employee engagement through dashboards, heat maps and scoring to provide continuous feedback.