The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated business transformation, remote working practices, and in many cases, has forced business owners to rapidly rethink their operations and services to stay afloat.
For some, this has unfortunately led to staff furloughs and redundancies in order to cut costs. For others, businesses are working on a limited basis with as many employees as possible being asked to work from home to adhere to social distancing measures implemented worldwide.
Lockdowns are slowly being eased, and with the loosening of restrictions on travel and non-essential employees being allowed to return to work, it is still possible that social distancing will be recommended -- alongside improved standards of hygiene -- before offices fully reopen. Therefore, business owners need to start thinking now about the different ways increased distance and cleanliness can be implemented with as little disruption to workflow as possible.
Below, ZDNet has listed a range of solutions and products that enterprise players and SMBs alike should consider before their offices reopen their doors.
Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.
While social distancing measures vary from country to country, a distance of two meters -- six feet -- is being advised by many at the present time.
This could spell the end of the open office as we know it, with a return to screens, panels, and cubicles that were once commonplace. However, this means businesses currently using open-plan setups may have to make some radical changes if they want to enforce social distancing rules and mitigate the risk of the spread of coronavirus.
Small and large business owners should consider a return to some form of cubicle design, at least for the time being, by investing in walls and screens for employees. Versare, for example, offers configurable cubicle partitions that do not need huge amounts of assembly and can, therefore, be erected quickly and without fuss.
Versare's Hush Panels are made up of lightweight, sound-dampening acoustic fabric panels, anodized aluminum posts, and optional polycarbonate glass windows in a variety of lengths and heights. The components slot together and do not require tools or manual labor.
If custom designs are not required or a more affordable option is wanted, Staples also offers ready-made panel workstations and cubicles.
It is not just social distancing that needs to be maintained in the foreseeable future during office hours -- the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced us to rethink our daily hygiene and made us more aware of touch and the potential spread of contagion.
One way that business owners can both tackle casual transference and also make sure that staff members are kept aware of any changes in COVID-19 regulations -- or in company policy as recommendations are constantly being tweaked -- is to invest in digital signage solutions. They could also be used to highlight cleaning rotas, warn of employee distancing measures, and remind staff of expected hygiene practices.
By switching from traditional whiteboards and pen-and-paper notices, digital signage, which may also be connected to mobile apps, can then be controlled remotely without the need to constantly touch boards.
Raydiant, for example, offers digital signage solutions ranging from an HDMI plug-and-play device on a single screen to a multi-location enterprise platform. Internet-connected screens can be updated remotely by operators who can use the signage to display marketing materials, product lists, or staff messages.
An option being suggested to allow businesses to begin to get back to something approaching normalcy is asking owners to consider staggering work time for their employees.
By requesting that staff members come into the office at different times during the day, in some cases, this could mean that fewer individuals will be in the workplace at one time, and therefore, it may be easier to maintain social distancing guidelines and to limit the risk of potential coronavirus spread.
While this solution may not be possible in every scenario and in every industry, for others, such a move could be feasible -- as long as it is planned properly.
This is where employee scheduling software comes in. If standard workday hours -- such as the typical 9 - 5 -- are going to be staggered, making sure there are enough staff on the shop floor at all times could be a daunting prospect.
WorkSchedule.Net is an online and mobile employee scheduler that includes schedule changes, alerts, and time-off requests. Mass changes for employees can be made at the same time through 'time block editing' features and schedules can be imported directly for payroll purposes to software including PayChex, SurePayroll, ADP, and QuickBooks. The app is available on Android and iOS.
Office closures have already forced many employees, if not furloughed, to work from home. While this has already led to stocks of webcams, external microphones, and headsets being cleaned out, if the transition to teleconferencing is due to become the norm, ensuring that quality is maintained across the board requires investment in equipment for employees.
If the coronavirus outbreak leads to restrictions on how many individuals are allowed in the workplace at one time, social distancing, and staggered office hours, remote work can be a way to manage these transitions more easily.
Business owners large and small need to consider what video conferencing software is most suitable for their company -- and this may include a subscription rather than relying on limited, free options -- as well as what headsets, microphones, and cameras could be purchased to ensure all staff members have everything they need outside of the workplace.
ZDNet has compiled executive guides for business owners that can assist in investment decisions, as listed below:
It might seem like an idea that's far out there, but telepresence robotics, such as those offered by Ohmnilabs, could be a valuable investment in a time of remote working and social distancing.
Also: Best telepresence robots in 2020
Telepresence robots are an upgrade to the video conferencing solutions we are currently integrating into our daily workflows. Rather than staying chained to a desk, these robots can be used to automatically track an individual's presentation or meeting, for example, while sending high-quality feeds to remote participants in real-time.
The 4'8" Ohmni Supercam is one such robot, which utilizes a 13MP camera with an ultra-wide field of view, a 130-degree tilting neck, over five hours of call time on a single charge, and autodocking technology. The telepresence robot weighs 20 pounds and is portable.
Social distancing measures do not just have to be maintained in the office -- they may also need to be extended to guests, too.
Many waiting areas and lounges are based on group or bench arrangements, but this may make staying a safe distance away from each other difficult. An option that business owners, large and small, may want to consider is changing these arrangements to expand the space available and prevent visitors from being too close to each other.
There are many modular seating products on the market, some of which can be pulled apart for distance purposes, and potentially clicked back together once social distancing measures are eased. Options and ideas can be found at Emergent, Kilo Design, Prooff, Innovative Business Furniture, and Officefurniture.com.
Of some benefit could be limiting casual touch on office furniture, including doors and handles. Especially important in larger businesses with potentially hundreds of people handling the same area every day, products that can limit touch could help maintain social distancing measures.
Business owners could consider purchasing door accessories including pull handles for doors that require people to use their feet rather than hands to open them, or staff could be equipped with keychain openers that can be used to open doors and press buttons.
Another product that small business owners may wish to consider investing in before staff members return to the office is hands-free disposal units. Widely available, motion sensors detect when an object -- such as a hand -- is nearby, and both open and close lids without the need for physical handling.
Why we chose these items
The COVID-19 pandemic, like the virus itself, is a complex matter with many facets -- not only impacting public health, but also causing severe disruption to the economy, our way of work, how we interact with others, and how company owners view their own businesses.
There is one glaring omission from the list above -- air conditioning and filtration systems. Our understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted continues to evolve, but at present, it is generally thought that the virus spreads through liquid particles expelled through our breath, coughing, or sneezing.
Air purifiers can help those with other conditions, such as asthma. However, HEPA filters are not believed to capture or destroy the novel coronavirus, and while PECO filters are being explored, there are currently no filtration systems suitable for office use that have been scientifically proven to help prevent infection.
As such, we have chosen to focus on solutions that we know might make a difference -- those that encourage adherence to social distancing measures, improve hygiene standards, and equip employees for a world of remote working.