Work From Home

The gadgets and software that could help us return to the office

What will it be like to go back to the office when countries start to loosen their lockdowns?

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tuomas Peltoniemi was used to traveling to China, Japan, and Australia for up to 100 days a year in his role as executive vice-president and managing director for the Asia-Pacific region at ad agency R/GA. But since lockdowns started during the Lunar New Year in January, he’s been based in his family home in Singapore.

And since March, when R/GA’s Shanghai office re-opened (complete with temperature checks, hand sanitizer, masks, and extra cleaning), Peltoniemi has been devising plans for how some of the company’s other employees can go back to their regular workplaces for when shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

“I’m looking at it more from a perspective of, you know, what is truly and genuinely the role of the office space? ... What are the expectations of people from working from an office space and working from wherever they choose to work from? … This return to (a) new normal, if you want to call it that, is not a linear, absolute date,” Peltoniemi told CNBC by phone.

When reopening in Shanghai, R/GA was flexible with how staff chose to go back, given that some of them had returned to family homes elsewhere in China or overseas for the New Year celebrations and may have felt uneasy about traveling. “A lot of the issues don’t so much come from the virus itself, it comes from fear and uncertainty. Especially in Shanghai, there was no precedent for it,” Peltoniemi stated.

Research from jobs website Totaljobs suggests that in the U.K. at least, people are keen to get back to their workplaces, with 54% wanting to do so by the end of June. The survey of nearly 7,000 people was conducted online between May 12 to May 15.

Masked meetings

Masks have been mandated by some governments for people on public transport, but don’t expect to see people wearing them in the workplace long term, says Sean McEvoy, a director at interior fit-out contractor Portview.

“It’s not a natural thing for us to run around with masks and gloves … the solution has to be in the space,” he told CNBC by phone.

Businesses may run in shifts, or only have people come to their workplace three days a week. Perspex screens might divide desks and boardroom tables might make way for socially-distanced podiums, McEvoy suggested.

A computer-generated image from interiors contractor Portview shows how office space may be segregated as people go back to the workplace after the coronavirus lockdowns are eased.
A computer-generated image from interiors contractor Portview shows how office space may be segregated as people go back to the workplace after the coronavirus lockdowns are eased.
Portview

For Leo Curtis, a product marketing manager at Lenovo in Beijing, returning to the office in March felt “refreshing.”

“When I first went back, I was hesitant, but it is a nice thing to have a collective place to see your colleagues and have a face to face — mask to mask — meeting on some things,” he told CNBC by email.

To manage childcare, Curtis is now working from home much more than before the pandemic. “That’s a difficult adjustment — managing distractions and spotty internet connections,” but it’s made easier by communicating on WeChat for any quick issues, Curtis stated.

Office space

The need for office space may reduce, but we’re not going to see flagship buildings turn residential any time soon, according to Patrick Plant, the real estate partner at law firm Linklaters.

“I don’t think we’ll suddenly see (London skyscraper) The Shard suddenly becoming a block of apartments from top to bottom or anything of that kind,” he told CNBC by phone.

But, how offices have adapted will be up for comparison, he suggested. “Peers and contemporaries I’m sure will be comparing notes about what their organization has done or maybe what it hasn’t done ... I’m a great believer in the physical space being very much a physical manifestation of the culture of an organization,” Plant said.

Eliot Wilson, head of research at reputation management company Right Angles sees more meetings happening at members’ clubs and says having premises in the U.K. capital is “hard to justify” given their cost.

“Banter with colleagues — that ‘watercooler culture’ — is a nice-to-have, but once you put a cold, hard monetary value on it, I don’t think it stacks up,” he told CNBC by email.

Technology may go some way to providing virtual watercooler moments. Panion is an internal social media platform for businesses, and CEO and founder Melanie Aronson said employees used it to form support groups and find others with similar interests during lockdowns.

Since January, it has seen an 86.7% increase in unique users joining hangouts it calls “gatherings,” for example.

Employee social media app Panion saw a rise in usage during lockdowns caused by the coronavirus.
Employee social media app Panion saw a rise in usage during lockdowns caused by the coronavirus.
Panion

Only a quarter of staff will be allowed into the London office of ad agency M&C Saatchi at a time — and on a voluntary basis.

CEO Camilla Kemp hopes that flexible working will attract a more diverse range of people. “We will open up the doors of talent too — making us a more inclusive environment for more talent who otherwise might not have considered a career with us because they couldn’t physically be ‘in the office’ at conventional working hours,” she told CNBC.

For Peltoniemi at R/GA, life is never likely to be the same again. “I think the nine to five … it’s kind of out of the question now, actually. We did a global work from the home survey for our staff and 95% of our global staff feel like they’ve been able to connect and do work at or above the levels that they had been in the past, during the course of the pandemic.”

And while the streets of a city such as Shanghai appear “normal” again, people’s mindset has shifted, Peltoniemi said.

“I was speaking to our leadership team and one of them said it feels like Covid never happened when you walk around Shanghai … When you speak to people more, so much has changed, actually.”

Employees are eating better, taking fitness classes and drinking less alcohol, and they are keen to make their working days more efficient, Peltoniemi said.

“Now that the sort of freedom of doing what we want was taken away from the teams, albeit, for a short period of time, it’s almost opened up people’s eyes and minds to, there is more I need to consider than just work and the office life,” he added.

As employers around the world figure out how best to return workers to the office, tech companies are hoping that gadgets and software could help the process.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns have left offices around the world empty. And while there’s been lots of talk about the benefits of flexible working, there are still some workers who want to experience life in the office again.

But to do that, companies need to make sure they have strict health and safety regimes in place. Tech firms big and small have been developing everything from wearable devices to thermal imaging cameras to help businesses equip their office spaces for the future.

Distancing

Tharsus, a U.K.-based robotics group, is mostly known for designing robotics and automation systems for firms like online retailer Ocado and telecommunications firm BT. In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the firm developed wearables for workers to wear around their necks to help with distancing themselves from colleagues.

The hardware — which looks like a futuristic smart necklace — sends out alerts to wearers every time they come into close proximity with another worker. Tharsus is looking to roll the technology out in a number of workplace environments, including offices, warehouses, and canteens.

U.K. robotics firm Tharsus has created wearable technology that alerts workers when they're too close to each other.
U.K. robotics firm Tharsus has created wearable technology that alerts workers when they’re too close to each other.
Tharsus

The tech is currently being trialed at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, an independent research institute based in Coventry, England. The facility houses manufacturing titans such as Rolls-RoyceAirbusSiemens, and General Motors.

“Bump is like traffic lights, which improve safety and at the same time improve capacity,” Tharsus CEO Brian Palmer told CNBC. “Analysis of Bump traffic data enables the volume of people in the workplace to increase, safely.”

It’s somewhat evocative of contact-tracing apps, another tool that companies — and governments — have been considering as part of their reopening plans. These apps rely on Bluetooth or location data to notify users if they may have been exposed to the virus.

Consulting giant PwC, for instance, developed an app for corporate clients to track employees who come into close contact and alert human resources staff if they may be at risk of coming down with the virus. The app has been tested in the company’s Shanghai office.

However, contact-tracing apps have faced criticism from privacy advocates concerned they could be too invasive. Officials and experts have also said the apps deployed so far haven’t yet been a “game-changer” in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

U.K. robotics firm Tharsus has created wearable technology that alerts workers when they're too close to each other.
U.K. robotics firm Tharsus has created wearable technology that alerts workers when they’re too close to each other.
Tharsus

While different from contact tracing, Tharsus’ solution is similar in that it aims to measure proximity. Bump relies on radio frequencies to send out signals to users if they get too close to each other. As far as privacy is concerned, Palmer said the tech was compliant with EU privacy laws and that data wouldn’t be shared with third parties.

“We designed Bump with this in mind and to ensure wearers don’t need to sacrifice data privacy,” he said. “All data is available to an individual business and their team members alike. Everyone can see who collected data, when and why.”

“Other app-based solutions only notify users if social distancing fails ‘after the event’ i.e. after they have been exposed to risk,” he said. “Bump provides real-time protection from the risk in the first place.”

Temperature screening

Meanwhile, thermal imaging cameras have also been suggested as a potential way of helping bring staff back to the office. The cameras use infrared technology to detect radiating heat from a person and then estimate their body temperature.

British telecommunications firm Vodafone is deploying heat detection cameras made by surveillance tech maker Digital Barriers. The cameras are currently in use at the training ground of English rugby club Wasps, however, Vodafone said they will also be used in offices, typically by an entrance or reception area.

Vodafone's thermal imaging camera positioned by the entrance of an office building.
Vodafone’s thermal imaging camera positioned by the entrance of an office building.
Vodafone

“The device uses both thermal and HD cameras to deliver reliable, real-time body temperature screening accurate to within +/- 0.3 degrees Celsius and can screen up to 100 people every minute,” said Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business U.K.

Responding to concerns over whether the cameras could infringe workers’ privacy, Vodafone said its cameras are a “temperature screening solution only.”

“The data it gathers is only relevant at that particular point in time,” said Sheehan. “The device doesn’t include technologies such as facial recognition and it cannot be used as a tracking device.”

But like much tech being proposed to return life to some level of normality, health officials have cast doubt on the use of thermal cameras in trying to detect and contain virus cases. The World Health Organization for instance has said temperature screening alone “may not be very effective.”

And while some tech companies are figuring out ways of detecting symptoms and regulating exposure to the virus, others are seeking to eradicate it.

UV lights from Signify pictured in an office site. The Dutch firm claims its lights can be used against the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
UV lights from Signify pictured in an office site. The Dutch firm claims its lights can be used against the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
Signify

Take ultraviolet lights, which have previously been used to kill bacteria, for instance. Some firms, such as Dutch lighting maker Signify, are hoping the technology can be applied to the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

The World Health Organization has warned people not to use UV lights on their skin due to the dangerous levels of radiation that they emit. But Signify aims to use the lights to disinfect surfaces in offices and other settings like schools and restrooms.

And science may be on the company’s side. Signify tested its own UV lights with researchers at Boston University, who found that exposure of the virus to UV light helps eradicate it. Signify is now ramping up production of the lights.

Communicating

One trend the pandemic has accelerated is the use of software to communicate and collaborate remotely. Platforms like ZoomSlack, and Microsoft Teams have seen a surge in demand with entire workforces forced to adapt to telecommuting. Cisco’s Webex video-conferencing app saw a record of 324 million users attend virtual meetings in March.

“There’s been a seismic change in the last few months in terms of working,” Chintan Patel, Cisco’s chief technologist in the U.K., told CNBC. “It goes without saying that what’s taken place has been incredible.”

The Cisco Webex app logo is displayed on a smartphone with a computer model of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the background.
The Cisco Webex app logo is displayed on a smartphone with a computer model of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the background.
Rafael Henrique | SOPA Images | LightRocket via Getty Images

The question for these platforms is whether they can continue this momentum as shelter-in-place measures ease and businesses start to reopen. Executives said there would be a continued need for such services as businesses adopt a “hybrid” approach of keeping staff at home while some employees return to the office.

Patel said touchless technology such as voice-activated intelligent assistants could help with holding virtual meetings from the office. Cisco’s video technology is also capable of measuring how many people are in a meeting, he said, adding this was compliant with EU privacy laws.

Still, it could be some time before a majority of office workers are back in the office. Many large tech companies are now offering workers greater flexibility over their working situations due to Covid-19 — Twitter has gone so far as to let employees work from home “forever.”

According to a YouGov study commissioned by identity management software firm Okta, just 29% of European workers surveyed between April and May wanted to go back to the office full-time. That figure fell to as low as 24% in Britain.

Made with Flourish

Meanwhile, 55% of workers felt they were equipped with the necessary hardware for working at home, while 56% said they had the appropriate software. YouGov surveyed over 6,000 people across the U.K., Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

Made with Flourish

“If you really have to bring everyone to a meeting together, something extraordinary will have to happen,” Julien Codorniou, vice president of Facebook’s Workplace app — a rival to Slack and Teams — told CNBC. “I hope the office will be a place for more meaningful interactions.”

Commuting

Finally, there’s the issue of how workers will get to the office. It’s easy to see why many people in big cities like London and New York might be anxious about the idea of taking public transport, potentially being packed in like sardines on a busy bus or subway. And driving in such areas can be far from ideal.

Several start-ups are hoping to convince authorities and consumers that two-wheel electric vehicles like scooters and bikes might be able to solve this problem. In the U.K. that’s particularly relevant since the government has recently made it legal to ride e-scooters on roads. A number of trials are getting underway across the country. 

Electric scooters from Swedish start-up Voi pictured in London.
Electric scooters from Swedish start-up Voi pictured in London.
Voi

New York City has also approved the private use of e-scooters and bikes and will allow e-scooter operators to apply for permits in the city, with the exception of Manhattan.

It is hoped the devices will offer a safer and more environmentally-friendly alternative for people commuting to the office.

“This is about getting the public back to work moving again in a safe way,” Richard Corbett, the U.K. general manager at Swedish e-scooter firm Voi, told CNBC.

“Authorities are using the current opportunity as an opportunity for challenge,” said Per Brilioth, CEO of VNV Global, an investor in Voi.

“That’s been the ongoing trend, to reduce — not take away completely — but reduce the need for cars and fossil fuel for transportation into something that’s cleaner in every aspect.”