Hybrid working – a mix of remote and office working – is likely to be something we see more of in the future. But how can employers make it work?
Hybrid working is emerging as the top preference for many workers in the post-Covid world. It’s what some describe as the best of both worlds – a mix of remote working and office-based working, giving people more flexibility than they have had up to now while avoiding the stresses and isolation of a fully home-based approach.
From an employer perspective, though, how do you make it work – particularly at the moment with concerns about social distancing, employers need to know how many employees are in the building to ensure they can stay two metres apart at all times? Technology can definitely make a difference. In the smart building sector, companies such as Honeywell International, Schneider Electric and Siemens are among those offering apps, sensors, software and other products which can help with Covid safety.
Siemens has just rolled out its Comfy App in the UK which is described as a holistic workplace app. It started its evolution in 2012 and was developed by a start-up company with a focus on environmental control, such as lights, temperature and blinds. Since then it has developed so that it can control or supply data on everything from desk numbers, room facilities, events taking place in a building and restaurant usage after Siemens acquired the start-up and combined the app with work it was doing on smart buildings and gave it a user interface.
“There has been a huge shift towards agile or hybrid working and we are trying to enable collaboration and a sense of community even when people are not in the office at the same time or don’t have set desks,” says James Bellingham, Head of Digital Buildings, UK&I, at Siemens Smart Infrastructure.
The app, for instance, allows people to share their location so colleagues know where they are and can find them and sit near them.
Bellingham says it is evolving all the time and the current model is based around the current Covid-19 scenario, where some people are being brought back into the office. It has been programmed, for instance, to help with social distancing and desk booking. It helps make it easier for facilities managers and other colleagues to see who is in the building and who is working from home so they can plan when is the most beneficial time to come in.
There are multiple other benefits to the app, for instance, cost savings on lighting and heating as well as sustainability issues. If the facilities managers know only 20% of staff are in the office they only have to heat and light those parts of the building that are in use. Motion sensors can also be used anonymously to track how people are using the buildings, for instance, if there are too many people wanting to use the staff restaurant at any given time or there are too many people on a particular floor. This is particularly useful to maintain social distancing. The app can be adapted in line with how the Covid restrictions change.
Covid has also changed how Siemens operates its desk space. Traditional hot desking is no longer encouraged because desks would have to be cleaned every time a new person sits at them. Instead a flexible use of desk space is encouraged with desk shifts allowing gaps for cleaning between each occupant.
Bellingham says there has been a big interest in the app from other companies who are trying to build trust and reassure employees about coming back to work and who need some way of managing a changing situation over the next months.
He says the app’s key strength is that adaptability. Other lighting and heating systems, for instance, are programmed to treat every working day as being the same, but don’t take into account that some days or parts of the day are busier than others.
Bellingham says that, although the move to more remote working is making many employers reconsider the office space they need, it is probably too early for them to change things, given the need for space for social distancing. Many, particularly those building new offices, are starting to think, however, about how they might get more people into less space if people only need to use the office a few days a week and can operate on a shift basis. That needs to be done carefully, with a lot of planning, to ensure people are as productive as possible.
For Bellingham a big issue is how to ensure the user experience with the app is the same across all of Siemens’ office locations. That means employees don’t have to keep learning new systems and are familiar with how it works if they need to move location. He anticipates the app will continue to evolve, with shift patterns likely to be the next frontier. “It’s a bit of a moving target,” he says.
Constant change is something we’re all struggling with these days and technology that is adaptable has clearly a huge part to play.