Workplace health and safety is going to a new level in the COVID era. These are some of the ways it’s changing.
Workplace health and safety is going to a new level in the COVID era. These are some of the ways it’s changing.

COVID-19 has changed your office

Staggered start times, temperature checks on arrival, Perspex partitions and GPS-tracked wearables - welcome to the post-coronavirus workplace.

As businesses prepare for staff to return to offices, stores and work sites, they are scrambling to implement new technologies and protocols that will keep their teams safe.

And this has been matched by a spike in sales for pandemic-friendly products, such as a contact-free clock-in software that uses facial and voice recognition rather than a pin pad or touch screen, according to industry experts.

"We quickly realised the time tracker is touched by every employee at least two times a day (so) it's probably the most unhygienic part of a workplace," said Deepesh Banerji, from workplace management software company Deputy.

He said the company is also developing pre-work check-in software that asks staff to confirm their health status before they even arrive.

"Imagine the way you check into a flight," Mr Banerji said.

"Similarly, you can check in early and answer questions (such as) 'Are you feeling healthy?', 'Have you experienced a cough?' and you can't come to work until you answer those questions."

Bill Wilson at his Farm Fresh Foods supermarket in Paddington. He has just installed contactless clock-on clock-off technology for his staff. Picture: Richard Dobson
Bill Wilson at his Farm Fresh Foods supermarket in Paddington. He has just installed contactless clock-on clock-off technology for his staff. Picture: Richard Dobson

Farm Fresh Foods owner Bill Wilson praised the contact-free technology staff at his gourmet supermarket had been using to clock on to shifts since early April as particularly useful in his sector.

"We have butchers, pastry cooks, chefs, fruitos and a deli and juice bar," he said.

"It has really changed my business but being able to just talk at it (the screen) is a bonus."

FitBit-style wearables that tracked employee location would also be used in workplaces for contact tracing, according to Graeme Orsborn from Everbridge International Critical Event Management Unit.

"I think wearables have a big part to play in the movement going forward because it's more enforceable and less invasive (than a downloaded mobile phone app)," he said.

These were already being used on construction sites and in warehouses to monitor health - for example, heart rates and whether a worker is standing up or on the floor - but he expected popularity to increase amid the coronavirus safety measures.

The software company's global Clarity Out of Chaos study revealed 94 per cent of Australians were willing to share personal data with their employer to aid with emergency alerting systems and 35 per cent were willing to share GPS data with their employer during the pandemic.

Mr Orsborn said Everbridge's Beijing office was an example of a workplace that had reopened since the coronavirus with new safety protocols.

It was operating at 50 per cent capacity in two shift patterns to meet strict social distancing rules.

"We also have to stagger the times people arrive," he said.

"We can't have an influx of people coming in because how can you use a lift? As they enter the building, their temperatures are being taken. Temperature taking is only going to be on the rise."

From a workplace design perspective, Unispace global strategy director Albert De Plazaola predicted some businesses would use more "self-sanitising" materials in their workplaces, such as brass and copper - although this may be cost-prohibitive for many.

"You will see a bit of material change but you might see more of organisations providing ostensible examples of how they are making their workplace safe," he said.

The workplace as we know it has changed forever in the COVID era. Picture: Getty Images
The workplace as we know it has changed forever in the COVID era. Picture: Getty Images

"Sometimes you walk into a hotel room and there are signals the room has been "done" - coasters on a cup and tape on the toilet - you might see that in the workplace.

"It's a psychological perspective."

But some well-intentioned safety precautions might also have the opposite psychological effect on staff.

Crisis management technology company Noggin's chief executive James Boddam-Whetham said some offices were installing Perspex shields to aid with social distancing but worried "peering out through Perspex" might create an unpleasant work environment.

"If people face a situation where they have to come into work, sit behind Perspex, social distance and not have communal lunch together, the benefits and niceties of coming into work are really diminished," he said.

But extreme and expensive solutions were not always necessary, said SafetyCulture chief operating officer Alistair Venn.

"You can get back to business by using something as simple as a checklist to look after the health and wellbeing of your staff and get business going again," he said.

"Sometimes the most simple things are the most powerful."

Originally published as How COVID-19 has changed your office