COVID-19 has forced organisations to rethink the future of physical workspaces. Everything from desk layouts to conference rooms to communal areas needs to be approached with a new lens of employee health and safety. Data plays a critical role in how leaders structure their reopening plans, identify metrics for reopening and measure effectiveness.

Some countries are already reopening offices as the rest of the world watches and learns. One of the biggest learnings from the Asia-Pacific region so far, as Gartner suggests, is the importance of “transparency” and “iteration”. As Hernan Asorey, Chief Data Officer at Salesforce explained, “We are always assessing the data we have available to make decisions. For every evolving need, we pragmatically look at what exists from trusted sources, we vet it with experts in the field, and then we assess, augment, learn and adapt."

Since organisations are faced with entirely new challenges – all dependent on a variety of factors including office location, workspace type and workforce size – leaders need data to inform a flexible approach to planning.

This blog post covers four areas where data can help inform your reopening strategy:

  1. Creating a COVID-19 task force
  2. Tracking regional policies
  3. Informing workspace planning
  4. Analysing employee survey data

These areas represent a starting point and not an exhaustive list. Since all of these details vary based on your organisation. Please use this blog post for informational purposes only. For detailed solutions on how to reopen your workplace safely and efficiently, explore Work.com by Salesforce.

1. Create a COVID-19 task force, backed by data

Reopening is a cross-functional effort. Organisations are instituting centralised, dedicated COVID-19 task forces – made up of a variety of people with a diverse set of skills and perspectives – to manage details like workplace logistics and employee communications. In Salesforce’s guide, How to Reopen Your Business, Elizabeth Pinkham, EVP of Global Real Estate at Salesforce, noted the importance of having this group represent your workforce as a whole.

“At Tableau, we’re bringing together a variety of stakeholders into workplace conversations,” said Debbie Smith, Senior Manager of Workplace at Tableau. “We have perspectives – and data – from all aspects of the company, from security to HR to real estate to marketing to procurement. We’re also bringing in outside experts to inform details like capacity planning and air filtration.”

All of these stakeholders work with different data points to inform their perspectives. For example, health and safety teams might monitor regional policy data, procurement might use data to inform any new equipment purchases, like panels between desks, while IT might work with workplace teams to determine how to replace existing equipment like phones or headsets.

Creating a dedicated team is a foundational step in a reopening strategy, because data is only useful when people can provide context and take action.

2. Track regional policy data to inform reopening

Reopening strategies are largely dependent on local policies. In addition to these policies, organisations are also faced with a long list of guidance from government authorities. In the US, this includes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Center for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and more.

Organisations are exploring centralised dashboards to track changing policies and to inform key indicators to determine when it is safe to reopen offices. The SC&H Group's Data Analytics Team, for example, created a sample dashboard that shows what this could look like for a company in the United States. The dashboard highlights legislation on a state-by-state basis alongside a map showing number of cases.

Sample dashboard from managing consulting group SC&H Group that displays local policy data alongside regional case data.

Christopher Adolph, associate professor of political science and adjunct associate professor of statistics at the University of Washington, is curating and maintaining a data set on state policies related to COVID-19 from open-source data. He encourages data and analytics leaders to take a focused approach when visualising local policy data. That might mean considering other visualisation types beyond maps to focus on specific, regional metrics that show the impact of COVID-19.

“If I were an organisation,” shares Christopher, “I would structure a visualisation to show what’s happening in each location associated with my business, with filters that allow stakeholders to sort through stringency of policies, trends in mobility and trends in cases. I would want to see a time series of how policies change over time as cases increase or decrease in a region.”

A Tableau partner, Lovelytics, created another dashboard template combining data from the Tableau COVID-19 data hub with sample HR data, providing a breakdown of at-risk employees by building, age group and location. Although this example was originally developed for companies looking to stabilise in a crisis, these types of dashboards could also become a single source of truth in the event of another wave of the virus after reopening.

Tableau partner Lovelytics created a COVID-19 and human resources dashboard solution to analyse risk by location.

3. Inform workspace planning, including desk layouts and density

Some of the most complex challenges that employers face in the wake of COVID-19 are related to workspace layouts. Many organisations have adopted open-office concepts, making it difficult to enforce two-metre guidance between employees. They’re also evaluating the use of shared spaces like kitchens, bathrooms and lifts along with high-end air filtration systems to reduce the spread of infectious droplets. One way that employers can start to make sense of all of these logistical decisions is through data.

Some key data points that employers are collecting (or considering collecting) around space utilisation are:

  • Physical distance (between desks and in shared spaces)
  • De-densification (removing furniture in communal spaces like kitchens and conference rooms)
  • Air movement and ventilation
  • Pinch points like elevators and bathrooms

These new challenges are leading organisations to take a new approach to workplace metrics. Salesforce, for example, is analysing data to model staggered arrival times so they can effectively manage lift capacity. “The last thing we want is employees waiting too long for the lifts and backing up into the lobbies and out onto the street,” shared Elizabeth Pinkham. Salesforce is also partnering with Siemens on key solutions for a ‘touchless office’, where organisations can manage occupancy and location data to augment their contact-tracing process (on an opt-in basis).

Global commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield noted in its Recovery Readiness guide that organisations may want to “invest in operational building technologies that enhance the integration, visibility, and control of building and workplace systems” (like occupancy sensors or air quality monitoring capabilities). The company also piloted a new office layout in Amsterdam named “The 6-Feet Office”, using large circles and visual cues to enforce a six-foot separation between employees.

An example dashboard from Tableau Zen Master Ken Flerlage. Note that this is intended to be an example and not a template. There are a variety of factors in workplace planning that organisations need to consider beyond the six-feet guideline.

Recently, Tableau Zen Master Ken Flerlage explored what an office space visualisation could look like, drawing six-feet circles around each desk. If a desk area doesn’t follow the six-foot perimeter, then the circle turns red and indicates that the company needs to rethink the layout of that office area. In Ken’s blog post about the visualisation, Amanda Makulec, Data Visualisation Lead at Excella and Bridget Cogley, Senior Consultant at Teknion explain that this template is a good starting point for people as they rethink office seating arrangements, but that there needs to be additional thinking around the complexities of how people move in an office setting.

To account for these complexities, some companies are hiring external experts to help set these parameters and inform logistics planning. All of these concepts will require additional iteration and flexibility as organisations put them into practice.

4. Analyse survey data about employee mental health and wellness

Whether or not they can physically return to work, organisations also need to think about employee needs. Are employees comfortable returning to work – and if so, in what capacity? Some employees need to stay home with kids as schools remain closed, others may have compromised immune systems, and some may just be more comfortable working from home until a vaccine is available to the public.

Some companies, including Tableau, are gauging employees’ concerns through regular surveys. They’ll ask questions about general wellbeing, like how they’re adapting to working from home and how the company can support them. Companies in the logistical planning stages might ask questions about whether or not employees are comfortable returning to work to determine reopening schedules.

An example dashboard from the Tableau people analytics team showing results of a COVID-19 work-from-home survey (this dashboard contains sample data).

With this data at their fingertips, organisations can analyse:

  • Mental health benchmarks
  • Employee feedback to inform reopening schedule
  • Employee needs like office equipment or childcare support services

Once offices reopen, companies could join this survey data with utilisation data to understand how many employees are actually coming into the office on a regular basis. This can help inform whether or not employees are comfortable with new working conditions. Since organisations will need to stagger shifts, start times and break times, this data can also serve as a reference point for shift planning.

Analysing the results of these surveys can help organisations develop important metrics around how the pandemic is affecting their employee base and help them determine how to take action.

Learn more about COVID-19 and workplace data

Data can be a powerful resource as organisations face unprecedented decisions about workplace reopening. But with health and safety at risk, organisations should equally invest in developing the people analysing this data and seek advice from outside experts to guide their path when necessary.

Explore additional COVID-19 resources:

  • Explore industry-specific data tracks and jump-start your own analysis with downloadable workbooks from the COVID-19 data hub.
  • Work.com by Salesforce provides you with essential solutions designed to help businesses reopen workplaces safely and efficiently.
  • Read Salesforce’s step-by-step guide for returning to the office from Elizabeth Pinkham, Executive Vice President of Global Real Estate.