As the Vaccine Economy begins to take shape, companies across the globe are beginning to outline their return to workplace strategies. And whilst some acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a change in behaviour that requires more flexibility for employees, others are adamant that everyone will return to the office as soon as it is safe to do so. There are also those that are biding their time, whilst they try to figure out what will emerge as ‘best practice' for remaining competitive, productive and keeping employees happy.
Which is why we note with great interest Salesforce's ‘success from anywhere' workplace strategy, for which it has also released a playbook to help other companies as a guide. Salesforce has been at the forefront of SaaS vendors offering tools to help companies navigate the pandemic - largely through its new Work.com platform - but it has also done more than most in outlining clearly its policies and approach to reopening offices.
For those that are confused or unsure about how to navigate this complex issue, taking a deep dive into what's happening at Salesforce might provide some useful food for thought and spur some novel ideas.
Salesforce has begun to open its offices in the US, starting with its Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, but it has already opened 22 offices across the world - where local government guidelines, low COVID infection rates, and vaccination programmes have made it possible to do so. And with these office openings, Salesforce has already gained some interesting insights into employee behaviour.
For example, 80% of the company's office collaboration space is used on Wednesday and Thursday, suggesting that employees tend to favour working from home at the beginning and the end of the week. Equally, employees are clearly using the office for in-person collaboration - where 64% of collaboration spaces are being utilized, whilst only 24% of desk space is.
So, as suspected, people are going into the office to share ideas, meet customers and do their brainstorming, but are using their time at home to be productive and get other work done.
A phased approach
As noted above, Salesforce has a broad global blueprint for its approach to office reopenings, but is also looking at each location uniquely, based on government guidance, input from public health officials, insight from local leadership, and an analysis of local and testing data.
However, as is evidenced by the US reopenings, Salesforce has a clear phased approach to how it is welcoming employees back into work spaces.
Phase one includes introducing ‘volunteer vaccinated cohorts', where vaccinated employees will be able to volunteer to join groups of 100 people or fewer to work on designated floors in certain offices, following safety protocols and making use of the Work.com platform for scheduling, testing and productivity. COVID testing will be available on site and will be mandated twice weekly.
We got the chance to speak to Lance French, SVP of Solution Engineering at Salesforce, about the company's strategy, where he says that the key component is basing the return to the office on data. He explains:
Our approach is really based on data, it's scientific, so we look at the COVID profile, number of cases, capacity that's available in terms of emergency rooms, ICU, etc. We are also considering local leaders' sentiment - so how are the leaders feeling about the return? And then it's an incremental return into the office. It's a percentage of employees, and then also local safety protocols.
We look at what the local government is recommending, then combine the two. We're also looking at vaccinated cohorts, which is about 100.. And then of course we are leveraging Work.com to orchestrate both the employee side of giving us information, and then also the employer side, which is making sure we've got a safe, productive environment.
Using Work.com, Salesforce employees are prompted to select their shift preferences for the week ahead, allowing the company to manage floor capacities, avoid potential bottlenecks, and to know who's scheduled to be in the office. All of this can be visualized in the Workplace Command Center.
In addition, before employees head into the office, they're required to complete a digital wellness assessment with Work.com. This asks employees a few short questions, such as how they're feeling, to try and ensure they're healthy and are safe to be in the office that day.
Work.com also includes manual contact tracing technology, to help pinpoint impacted areas if there is an outbreak and to reach other colleagues that may have come into contact with someone that has fallen ill.
On the vaccinated cohort front, French explains:
The second component is we're not requiring employees to get vaccinated, but we are acknowledging the safety aspect of a vaccination. So if an employee wants to be a part of our voluntary cohort, they certainly can. We're asking them to show their vaccination card visually one time. And then we're recording that information in Work.com.
From that point forward, we will ask two things. One is that they do the wellness check and follow our safe protocols, which includes testing, two times a week. And then on the scheduling side, we make sure that we've got a safe environment - capacity checks, scheduling in elevators, etc.
The second phase for Salesforce employees will see offices gradually reopen from 20% to 75% capacity, depending on the COVID data rating and local guidance. In this phase Salesforce will welcome both vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees, and will continue to follow safety protocols and offer testing where available. Some 17 of Salesforce's offices are already in this phase, most of which are in Asia Pacific.
The third and final stage will be full office reopening with up to 100% capacity. Vaccinations will still be encouraged and testing will be available where possible. Salesforce currently has five offices open in this stage, including Sydney.
The office isn't the center of work
Whilst Salesforce offices will key to the future for the company - and will include redesigned lobbies, elevators, and more collaboration space - they will no longer be the center of work. The strategy is called ‘success from anywhere', as Salesforce is keen to encourage flexibility and for employees to work in a way that works for them. French explains:
We've learned a lot - it's our first pandemic, as Marc Benioff likes to say. It's been a lot of partnering with our customers, and just really understanding and learning along with them. So, what we are now seeing is that the office is important, but we don't see it necessarily as the central role of our work environment.
We're using the term ‘success from anywhere' and really what we're talking about is we think there's a need to be in the office, in these flexible work arrangements, especially with customers, or for that connection with employees.
But we've also learned how to be a lot more agile, so giving employees more flexibility for time in the office, working from home, and other locations. And it's really thinking about the role and what's most appropriate.
Again, Salesforce's Work.com platform is helping to enable this. The Employee Workspace capability, for example, gives employees a single, connected space to access all the apps, resources and information they need to work productively. In addition, a tool called Employee Concierge has been added, which is essentially a Google-style search interface with access to knowledge articles and AI-powered recommendations.
French says that much of what has been included in Salesforce's strategy is being driven by the employee. He adds:
We're going to be a lot more intentional about the experience. So we're going to ask the employees to let us know what's needed.
And I think that's really been the biggest eye opener because there was a lot of anticipation early on about, will we ever return back to the office? Will we be completely virtual? And I think the big learning is, we need a combination of both. So, we need to flex, but we also need to make sure that we're still providing that option.
It's interesting because you're seeing now that employees expect a different environment when they return. And I think we internally have to expect that we will provide that. So really listening and being able to do that is something that's top of mind for us.
As I suggested at the beginning of this piece, there is a lot of confusion out there about what is the best way forward. Companies are hesitant to take decisive action, largely through fear of leaving the old way of doing things behind and hesitancy about what it will mean for future competitiveness and productivity. And as for those companies that are pushing for a full time return to the office...well, I think history will be the judge of that. But Salesforce's playbook for returning to the workplace has all the key ingredients for how companies should be thinking about this - office redesign, safety, the right digital tools, flexibility, and most importantly, employee choice.