Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

VMware brainstorms new ways of working after the COVID-19 pandemic

VMware CIO Bask Iyer tells ZDNet about the challenges and potential opportunities ahead, as his team thinks about how to safely welcome nearly 40,000 employees back to the office.

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When the COVID-19 outbreak hit the California Bay Area, prompting shelter-in-place orders, VMware's workforce was ready. Many of VMware's employees were already accustomed to working from home. Additionally, the company had a robust business continuity/ disaster recovery plan in place. 

"In one day, we switched to 35,000, 40,000 people working from home," VMware CIO Bask Iyer said to ZDNet. "I have to say, so far it's gone flawlelssly. The only complaints are, 'This is so productive, I'm working harder than I used to before.'"

The hard part, it turns out, may be getting people back into the office. 

"It's not as simple as, 'Oh it's over, let's bring them back," Iyer said. "There's a lot of focus on how do you bring people back safely and effectively." 

Iyer spoke with ZDNet about everything VMware is currently considering, from determining which locations to re-open, to setting precautionary safety measures and adopting new technologies. 

And while there are obvious concerns about what may unfold as people try to resume their normal lives, Iyer expressed hope that, in some ways, the workplace will change for the better because of the current situation. 

"I'm trying to put an optimistic front on it," he said. "Never let a crisis go to waste."

Getting people back to the office

The first consideration is when and where to start re-opening offices. Obviously, Iyer said, VMware isn't going to break any laws by opening up offices too early. 

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"We will probably be a little more conservative because the fact is, a lot of us can work from home," he said. "We may want to open the office, but a lot of people have children out of school, and they don't have babysitters -- we have to be sensitive to the fact that there are some people who may not come in for a very long time. We probably would say you are obviously welcome to work from home in that mode until you feel comfortable to come in, but here's how you can come to work if you want to." 

When an office re-opens, it will have to accommodate social distancing practices, Iyer said. According to a recent PwC survey, 65 percent of chief financial officers anticipate retooling work sites for physical distancing. 

VMware has teams going site by site, determining how many people a building usually accommodates and how many should be allowed back to keep everyone safe. They're considering ways incorporate social distancing into seating arrangements, whether signs should be posted with warnings and tips, whether janitorial services will need to be stepped up. "These are the decisions we're going through right now," Iyer said.  

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Meanwhile, VMware is considering ways it could use technology to make life easier for employees and customers. For instance, the company could deploy an application -- with privacy considerations in mind -- to track how closely employees come to one another and alert users if they've repeatedly come closer than six feet to others.  

They're looking at ways to use mobile apps to reduce physical touchpoints in the office -- using an app to unlock doors or use the printer, for instance. And they're considering office reservation systems that may not give workers access to their personal office but an office that fits their needs and preferences. 

"A lot of us are brainstorming applications like that," Iyer said. "There's no shortage of ideas."

In some cases, it's clear that workplace modifications already implemented will be long-lasting. For instance, there's no need to gather everyone into the same physical space for all-hands meetings, Iyer said. With virtual meetings, "engagement has been higher, there's a lot more questions coming in, I can see everyone's face clearly, there are recordings where I can not only look at he presenter but at other audience members," he said. "These events, where we had crowded rooms with employees, clearly we don't have to do it that way."

Big-picture changes to the way we work

When the pandemic first struck, Iyer said he was among the many who believed that the crisis "dramatically changes everything."

"I was in that boat initially, saying, 'If we can all [work remotely] all the time, then why wouldn't you get rid of all real estate and just work this way?'" Iyer said. But it turns out, he learned, that "some of us actually don't like to work this way."

On top of that, Iyer said that it's hard to square the current enthusiasm for remote work with the reputation that Silicon Valley previously built for itself, as a special place that fosters collaboration and innovation. 

"I don't want to go from one extreme to the other," he said. "I am now thinking, yes it does change the way we work, we have to look at more collaborative ways of working... but we can't lose this glue with employees. The truth is going to be somewhere in the middle."

Iyer is optimistic about the impact that changing work habits could have on environment, as commuting drops, as well as its impact on diversity and hiring within the tech industry. 

"We have an opportunity to get talent we normally wouldn't be able to get," he said. While recruiting under-represented minorities may in some cases seem like a challenge, "you can't tell me you can't find any qualified Latinas or African Americans or women in all of the United States."