Australians will soon start heading back to work. But the office will never be the same, writes news.com.au's Frank Chung
No more shared cookie jars, fewer meetings, staggered start times and temperature checks before you leave the house – Aussies may be heading back to work, but the office will never be the same.
On the plus side, hot-desking will likely be a thing of the past as the world makes the transition to "post-Covid workplaces", where hygiene, safety, social distancing and regular cleaning will take the driver's seat after decades of cost-cutting measures.
And millennials who entered the workforce in the "open plan" era may soon be getting their first taste of the cubicle.
"I think some (employees) are going to be a little bit excited with the ability to have their own equipment and not have to move desk constantly throughout the day," said Lisa Mhaya, a workplace solutions expert with property services firm Cushman & Wakefield.
With businesses being urged to make workplaces coronavirus-safe in preparation for a major economic restart, Cushman & Wakefield – whose clients include NAB, BHP, Australia Post and Suncorp – has unique expertise in this area, having successfully returned one million people to offices in China across 10,000 sites after lockdowns there ended.
The firm has used that experience to draw up a comprehensive "how-to guide" covering everything from the airconditioning and reception desks to the stationery cupboard, mail room and even the morning commute.
Between stepping out of their front door in the morning and arriving home at night, Cushman & Wakefield estimates a typical worker the will come into contact with approximately 40 different "touchpoints" that could potentially transmit the coronavirus throughout the day.
Door handles, pedestrian crossings, lift panels, handrails, bin lids, kitchen taps, vending machines – pulling, pushing, pressing, turning.
"Our recommendation for day one is the removal of crockery and cutlery, any shared consumables or kitchen implements, replacing them with recyclable coffee cups, water bottles, wooden knives and forks," Mhaya said.
"You're not going to have a biscuit barrel where 30 people put their hand in to get an Arnott's biscuit. We are replacing those with individually packaged biscuits. We're also exploring pre-packaged food options."
Reducing those touchpoints and managing flows of people will be crucial. Many offices are installing floor decals and designating single entry and exit points to ensure clockwise movement.
Heat maps using wi-fi connection data will allow employers to detect whether employees are congregating too closely, while staggered start times will prevent long queues forming at elevators in the morning.
"Over the last five years our emphasis has been on flexible, agile working, very lean – the type of desk kit, everything shared, stapler, stationery – everything was around maximising your real estate portfolio and minimising space allocated to people," Mhaya said.
"The biggest change (will be) pulling that right back to create those social distancing measures. Where you may have had 10 people in a pod, you may have at most two to three people with 1.5 to 1.8 metres between each of them – the 'six-feet office'."
Workers can expect temperature checks as they enter the office, and Cushman & Wakefield even has an app ready to go live that will allow employees to take their own temperature before they leave the house in the morning.
"If you have an elevated temperature you don't come in, there is a dedicated hotline where they can call a health professional," she said, adding that the feature would give workers a "level of comfort" about their co-workers.
While there will be a focus on sustainability "as much as possible", Mhaya said there was "no question people's health is always going to take absolute priority over whether we can reduce as much waste as we would like".
Some employees, such as those with longer commutes or in older age groups, will be encouraged to continue working remotely after the lockdown forced many companies to bite the bullet – and discover it is possible after all.
"Employers are feeling more comfortable when six months ago the idea of their employees working from home wasn't the most palatable – that is going to be a remarkable change," Mhaya said.
"Where you'll see the continuing agility will really be around the choice of how you work and where you work. It will enable people that freedom of saying, 'Do I need to go into the city today or can I work from home?'"
NAB, which in three weeks went from around 5000 staff working remotely to more than 30,000, is now planning for a return to corporate offices and "some form of a 'new normal'".
"We've moved quickly to provide secure remote access for our people enabling more than 32,000 staff to work from home, including nearly all of our call centre teams," NAB executive general manager of cloud, infrastructure and workplace technology Steve Day said in a statement to news.com.au.
"In addition to making sure we had the technology we needed, we've also redirected more than 800 people from across NAB who have been re-skilled to support customer-facing teams during this period. We've re-skilled more than 350 retail employees in temporarily closed branches to be able to help other customer support areas like our call centre or online chat teams."
Day said NAB was continuing to monitor actions taken by the government "to help guide our planning as we start to consider and plan for what a return to corporate offices and some form of a 'new normal' will look like for our employees".
"There's clearly still a way to go but improvements in contact tracing methods and the use of the COVIDSafe app for example, as well as more testing of those with symptoms will be important factors in any government decision to change the current status quo," he said.
It comes as national cabinet sets is sights firmly on restarting the economy and getting people back to work, after Treasury modelling revealed the lockdowns were costing $4 billion a week and Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed one million people lost their jobs in one month.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy yesterday said staggered hours were one way to reduce contact as people return to work.
"We don't want everybody crowding on public transport at the same time," he told reporters in Canberra.
"We don't want everyone crowding in the lifts at the beginning of the day and the end of the day."
Professor Murphy said cleaning products and hand sanitiser should be in workplaces, while hot-desk arrangements would need to change. He also said using video conferencing where possible and maintaining the handshake ban would be important.
Businesses will also be given advice on managing potential outbreaks and reconfiguring sites to meet health standards. The Safe Work Australia website has been turbocharged to provide specific advice to 23 sectors across 1300 pages.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday stressed the importance of coronavirus-safe workplaces as the nation looks to repair economic damage.
"We now need to get one million Australians back to work. That is the curve we need to address," Morrison said.
Some economic and social restrictions are set to be eased on Friday after the next meeting of federal and state leaders. "When we ease these restrictions, you will see numbers increase in some areas. You will see outbreaks occur in other places. That is to be expected," Morrison said. "What matters is how you deal with it."
Unions are pushing for businesses to be compelled to provide virus-safe environments, but Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter believes existing laws force employers to comply.