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Strategies for Returning to Work Safely

In the Oasis meeting space at Red Thread, a table that once sat six people has been marked with signs that display where no more than three people should sit.
In the Oasis meeting space at Red Thread, a table that once sat six people has been marked with signs that display where no more than three people should sit. (Image credit: Red Thread)

What do you do in a pandemic if you’re a workplace design consultancy? Like many other companies with offices full of workers, Boston-based Red Thread sent people home. You make sure employees are equipped with the tools they need to conduct business remotely. You retrofit your own facilities throughout New England and New York for social distancing and disinfecting, and you plan for a safe and gradual return.

As a workplace design consultant, you also provide a Workplace Re-entry Program and guide, and you shift your services to address COVID-19 related needs.

In just a few months, the workplace has changed dramatically; not before our eyes, but in our minds. “Work environments in the future will require reinvention as science-based evidence and emerging technologies offer new solutions,” stated Red Thread’s Re-entry Planning Guide. 

Technology is, of course, a critical tool for companies to adjust to the New Normal. “Planning paradigms of the past were driven by density and cost,” Red Thread’s guide stated. “Going forward they need to be based on the ability to adapt easily to possible economic, climate and health disruptions.”

The reinvented office is designed with a commitment to the well-being of people.

Sudden Remote

March 16, 2020: Red Thread asks that employees who can perform their work at home to do so. Just a few days later, with the stay-at-home advisories throughout New England, the company transitioned to a virtual organization.

For Red Thread, that meant beefing up its use of Microsoft Teams for communications and collaboration.

“We started company-wide Microsoft Teams training pre-COVID and continued to offer additional training virtually once we encouraged all employees to work remotely,” said John Mitton, vice president of the audiovisual group and CTO at Red Thread. “Teams empowered our people to make the transition seamlessly from in-person interactions to remote work.” Red Thread staff was well positioned to serve its customers remote. 

“If we can’t be with our customers in person, we can still have meaningful face-to-face conversations and connect virtually. In some cases, we’ve created deeper and more personal relationships. Using Teams conferencing to collaborate has been instrumental for teamwork.”

The Teams platform allowed Red Thread to keep working remotely. Then what do to about the offices and workplaces that remained eerily empty as employees huddled at home? We may never huddle in those spaces the same ways again.

Red Thread is implementing a phased approach to office re-entry that echoes its furniture partner Steelcase’s “Now, Near, Far” methodology to retrofit the workplace. Now is the first wave of employees returning, which means pulling workstations and desks apart to increase distancing, turning workstations to meet at 90-degee angles, and reducing shared desking. 

The RapidEntry Facility Temperature Check System avoids manual test queueing by using a thermal camera with a calibrator.

The RapidEntry Facility Temperature Check System avoids manual test queueing by using a thermal camera with a calibrator.  (Image credit: Red Thread)

The Near phase focuses on executing safe re-entry for some or all employees, and is where technologies help. Far is the new, evolving normal that results. 

Many Red Thread employees will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future. Clients who want to experience the company’s living showroom to see how technology can create a high-performing space can schedule visits by appointment.

Meanwhile, Red Thread’s own offices and mission are being refitted to provide post-pandemic services. The pre-COVID open-plan designs with high density and shared spaces are being reconfigured to meet 6-foot distance requirements, increased space division, and fewer seats. “Our focus in the past was on maximizing space utilization. Now our focus is on providing tools to support separation,” Mitton said.

Growing Near

With retrofitting, Red Thread’s own seat count decreased by 35 percent. The company will create a circulation footpath and add hand sanitization stations. Digital signage throughout the space will show CDC protocols. Red Thread’s facilities will serve as effective showcases for its post-pandemic consulting services.

All employees authorized to return to Red Thread offices will utilize a mobile application to reserve a specific desk for a half or full day. The reservation system ensures that occupancy limits set by the state mandates are met. If contact tracing is required, the system tracks who worked in the space, and where.

“We are implementing and offering our customers technologies that provide visibility and notifications at the management and employee level, building a transparent company culture committed to employee well-being,” Mitton said. 

Red Thread’s focus will be on technology in the workplace that supports collaboration anywhere and safety at work. Examples include:

  •  All-in-one interactive displays, whiteboards and conferencing devices
  • Personal collaboration systems
  • Automated temperature checks
  • Employee desk reservation mobile app
  • Air purification systems
  • Space occupancy monitoring
  • Microsoft Teams/Zoom/Cisco rooms
  • Pexip interoperability software
  • No-touch control interfaces

No-Touch Strategies

How can companies reduce the number of touches, to lower the risk for employees and clients? “For now, we will be using Proximity Join for all our Teams Rooms, which is the bulk of our collaboration spaces. Our near strategy is to introduce remote control either through voice activation and/or a QR code, and have your personalized device control the room,” Mitton said. Proximity Join allows participants from one Teams Room to invite another Teams Room that is in close proximity to join the meeting. 

Not so Far?

Red Thread sees a near future in which offices leverage a combination of technologies to ensure their employees’ safety, including collaboration platforms, sensors and facial recognition systems for touchless controls, and digital signage for protocols and crucial information, temperature checks, and analytics.

Red Thread not only uses Teams for web conferencing, but as its unified communication and collaboration platform that combines workplace chat, file sharing and storage, and application integration. Teams is now the company’s collaboration ecosystem. Each department has a Teams channel for posts, chats, and centralized file editing and storage.  

All meeting spaces show availability and a maximum occupancy sign.

All meeting spaces show availability and a maximum occupancy sign. (Image credit: Red Thread)

As more meetings will take place outside the confines of an enclosed space, any space can be a collaboration space. With many employees continuing to work remotely, a Surface Hub 2S cart allows participants to collaborate easily, regardless of whether you are remote or in the office. 

As a “far” strategy, Red Thread is to incorporate facial recognition and NFC (near-field communication) to know who is in the room and start the meeting, which could include initiating a video call or starting up a presentation.    

Red Thread offers its clients “Collaboration Rooms as a Service,” a new and flexible way to implement the latest Microsoft or Zoom room systems, without the need for capital expenditure. 

RapidEntry Facility Temperature Check System avoids manual test queueing by using a thermal camera with a calibrator. 

Digital Signage Systems help to communicate COVID-19 protocols that adhere to CDC requirements. This system includes a technology platform and player, display(s), COVID-19 communication templates, and 24/7 support.

Safe by Density includes occupancy monitoring, notification, and an analytics system that measures the real-time occupancy in spaces, offices, or buildings to ensure compliance of safe capacities. This information will empower employees and managers to maintain physical distancing and build trust in returning to the workplace.

Maintaining Connections

Red Thread expresses the connection we see between culture, values, and business mission. The company lives by an ancient Chinese proverb: “An invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.” 

Our threads in the past several months have certainly stretched and tangled. Their mess is being sorted out in millions of offices and workplaces that must cope with a new normal—by never breaking the thread.

To learn about the “Now, Near and Far” insight methodology created by Steelcase, explore Red Thread’s three-step workplace re-entry process of space analysis, modification services, and workplace readiness products, visit www.red-thread.com.