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The ‘New Normal’ Workplace

By Francesca De Ocampo

COVID-19 has changed the world drastically that even the workplace is never going to be the same.

Physical distancing is required. Sanitation measures are strictly enforced. And team members reporting to the workplace must submit to regular health screening. (Team members may read the Aboitiz Return-to-Work Playbook here.)

With no vaccine available yet, what will the ‘new normal’ workplace look like?

Goodbye to Open Office Spaces?

The concept of open office spaces was popularized in the early 20th century by Frank Lloyd Wright. Known for his stunning design of the S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Complex in Racine, Wisconsin, the idea was thought to be groundbreaking — democratic architecture where walls are broken down literally and figuratively.

S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Complex, Open Office Space
The S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Complex in Racine, Wisconsin was considered a prime example an open office space. (Photo from scjohnson.com)

But as much as open workspaces were meant for increased collaboration and productivity, they have become hotbeds for viruses. In a study made by the American Society for Microbiology, 40 to 60 percent of workers were infected with a virus after being in contact with commonly touched objects. More so, microbes can travel through the air and within HVAC systems, if not properly maintained and regularly cleaned.

Execution of floor plans could also pose a problem as open office spaces have become cost-saving measures, filling the “empty” spaces with more employees. It was contrary to Wright’s original blueprint, where employees were stationed a meter apart. According to an investigation done by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on an identified densely populated open office, almost half of the workers emerged positive for COVID-19.

Open Office Space, Confirmed COVID-19 cases
Floor plan of the identified office which was considered a coronavirus break hotspot in South Korea. The ones in blue are the seating places of persons with confirmed cases. (Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, South Korea)

Could this be the end open-floor offices? According to articles published by BBC, New York Times, and National Geographic, businesses are considering. Could this mark the return of the cubicles? Maybe but in a form of ‘sneeze guard’ made out of plexiglass. Dr. Susan Huang, medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at the University of California, Irvine, said that the barriers — originally designed to minimize noise — can be repurposed for protection.    

However, as recognized by Dr. Huang, the fight against COVID-19 needs more than just plastic shields.

Safety First

In an article by BBC, experts recommend a combination of short-term fixes and long-term solutions emphasizing on stringent hygiene practices. Albert De Plazaola, global strategy director of international design firm Unispace, said that the primary focus will be to keep employees safe and to alleviate their fears. He likens the tactical solutions companies will try to come up with surgical interventions, where employees could have a sense of safety temporarily.
WeWork, an international workspace solutions provider present in the Philippines, said that it has been working with industry and government agencies to modify their shared spaces to focus on “prioritizing personal space, cleanliness, and behavioral signage.”

Last May, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) released the Interim Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of COVID-19, which the Aboitiz Group referred to in the Return-to-Work Playbook. The playbook is a working document updated regularly for team members to navigate through the ‘new normal’. Some of the protocols included are general guidelines, details on the re-entry screening process, process of delivery and releasing of items, packages, documents, and checks, and signages and reminders.

Return-to-Work Playbook, Guidelines, Internal
The Aboitiz Group Return-to-Work Playbook is regularly updated with the latest government-issued workplace guidelines to protect team members while working in the office. 
The playbook was a result of incorporating government directives from the DOH, DTI, DOLE, as well as the Taguig City LGU into our internal processes — conducting risk assessments pertaining to the pandemic and setting up controls and protocols in order to address the prevention and detection of the spread of COVID-19. This is a team effort of the COVID-19 pandemic TWG of the Aboitiz Group.

- Andy Torrato, AVP - Physical Assets Security, AEV

As soon as the news of COVID-19 was reported in January, the Aboitiz Group has been proactive on crafting relevant protocols and preventive and precautionary measures. Information was obtained from DOH, WHO, reputable medical journals, as well as practices and learnings from other companies.

Given all the uncertainty during the quarantine period, Team Members had a lot of questions. The playbook is something that TMs can download and easily refer to when they have questions. Now more than ever, we need to overcommunicate. Fear comes from uncertainty and the unknown. Having the playbook, together with our microsite, our Team Members are more informed and equipped to operate within the new normal.

- Tin Kempeneers, AVP - Risk Management, AEV

A workplace re-entry program was also put into place to ensure the protection of team members and all stakeholders while allowing companies to continue servicing the vast majority of customers. The program includes sanitation and disinfection measures in communal areas, elevators, workstations, facilities, and equipment.

An exclusive ride sharing mobile app called ‘Pasabay’ has also been developed for team members to either book or offer a ride with other A-People travelling to and from the NAC and ORE offices.

COVID-19 has changed the way we work. More so, it has placed greater emphasis on health and sanitation, affecting our lives like never before. The future remains uncertain, but as #OneAboitiz, we will continue to adapt to the situation with resilience — demonstrating Integrity, Teamwork, Innovation, and Responsibility in advancing business and communities.