The coronavirus already changed the way we work. Now it’s changing the physical space, too.
Many companies are making adjustments to their offices to help employees feel safer as they return to in-person work, like improving air circulation systems or moving desks further apart. Others are ditching desks and building more conference rooms to accommodate employees who still work remotely but come in for meetings.
Architects and designers say this is a time of experimentation and reflection for employers. Steelcase, an office furniture company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says its research indicates half of global companies plan major redesigns to their office space this year.
“This year caused you to think, maybe even more fundamentally than you ever have before, ‘Hey, why do we go to an office?'” said Natalie Engels, a San Jose, California-based design principal at Gensler, an architecture firm.
Not every company is making changes, and Engels stresses that they don’t have to. She tells clients to remember what worked well — and what didn’t — before the pandemic.
But designers say many companies are looking for new ways to make employees feel safe and invigorated at the office, especially as a labor crunch makes hiring more difficult.
That’s what drove food and pharmaceutical company Ajinomoto to overhaul the design of its new North American headquarters outside Chicago last year.
Ajinomoto’s employees returned to in-person work in May to a building with wider hallways and glass panels between cubicles, to give them more space and try to make them feel more secure. To improve mental health, the company transformed a planned work area into a spa-like “relaxation room” with reclining chairs and soft music. A test kitchen is wired for virtual presentations in case clients don’t want to travel. And a cleaning crew comes through twice a day, leaving Post-it notes to show what’s been disinfected.
“Maybe it’s over the top, but maybe it provides comfort to those that have sensitivities to returning to an in-person work environment,” said Ryan Smith, the executive vice president of Ajinomoto North America. Smith estimates 40% of the new headquarters design changed due to COVID.
Shobha Surya, an associate manager of projects and sales at Ajinomoto, is energized by the space.
“The office gives you a balance of work and home life,” she said. “You are more focused here and don’t have any distractions.”
Surya said she’s also thrilled to be working alongside her co-workers again.
She’s not alone. Surveys show the thing employees miss most about office work is socializing and collaborating with colleagues, said Lise Newman, workplace practice director at architecture firm SmithGroup. Companies are trying to encourage that rapport by building more social hubs for employees. Some mimic coffee houses, with wood floors, booth seating and pendant lamps.
“Companies are trying to create the sense that this is a cool club that people want to come into,” Newman said.
Steelcase has divided one of its lobbies into cozy meeting spaces of varying sizes, separated by plant-filled partitions. Mobile video monitors can be wheeled in so that people working remotely can be included in discussions.
But after a year of working from home, some employees crave privacy, so Steelcase added more glassed-in booths for private calls and cocoon-like cubicles with small sliding doors.
Mark Bryan, a senior interior designer with Columbus, Ohio-based M+A Architects, expects a more fluid office culture in the future, with different places to work on any given day. Introverts might choose a small, private room; extroverts, a table in the office café.
Some office changes reflect a new commitment to hybrid work. Valiant Technologies, which provides tech support and other services to businesses, is letting its employees work primarily at home but has them reserve a desk for the days they want to come to the office. The New York company has removed rows of desks and put more space between the remaining ones. Employees leave their keyboard, mouse and headsets in lockers.
Megan Quick, a sales associate with Valiant, said she appreciated the company allowing her to ease back into office life this month.
“It will take a lot of time for us to readjust,” she said. “Valiant letting us set our pace for returning makes me feel safe.”
Not every design change will stick. Last summer, when Steelcase started bringing back some workers, they pushed tables in the cafeteria far apart from each other and only allowed one person per table. It made the space so depressing that no one wanted to sit there, Steelcase CEO Jim Keane said.
“An important lesson is that, yes, it has to be safe, but also has to be inspiring,” he said. “People are actually going to expect more from offices in the future.”
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP)
Sleep therapy device raises over $315.38 in crowdfunding
A UK-designed sleep therapy solution with global ambitions raised over $314.21 in the first week of a Crowdcube crowdfunding campaign.
SleepCogni, a portable device with data support for people suffering from insomnia, has so far attracted funds from 157 different investors in this latest fundraiser that combines venture capital investments and crowdfunding.
The firm’s latest lenders include Chasnay Capital Investments, a new private investment fund founded by three former senior executives from General Electric (GE) Healthcare.
Co-founded by Sheffield-based entrepreneur Richard Mills, who has personally suffered from sleeping disorders, and Dutch chronobiologist and sleep expert, Dr Maan van de Werken, said the device allows users to self-manage their insomnia, a condition which affects one in three people across the world.
“Our successful crowdfund campaign builds on the momentum of last month’s FDA registration and the completion of clinical trials where SleepCogni achieved extraordinary results reducing clinical insomnia in just seven days.”
Reinaldo Garcia from Chasnay Capital Investments added: “We’re excited by our investment into SleepCogni for many reasons: its patented technology and clinically validated solution addresses an unmet need in the global sleep aid market, and the company is backed by an excellent team. As experienced global senior leaders with a proven track record, we can add value in this next exciting stage of the business and help SleepCogni scale on a global level.”
Pfizer vaccine efficacy falls to 84% after 6 months
Pfizer and BioNTech published on Wednesday new data indicating their COVID-19 vaccine efficacy decline from 96 percent to 84 percent over six months.
These numbers are regarded as a big motivator to the drug makers currently developing a third “booster shot” to target the Indian Delta variant.
The released data shows that the antibody levels are much higher against the Alpha coronavirus variant and the South African Beta variant, after a third dose.
Based on the figures, the efficacy “declined gradually” as it dropped from 96 percent during the first week to around two months after receiving a second jab. The dose’s effectiveness then plummeted to 83.7 percent four to six months later with an average drop of 6 percent over the last two months.
The findings may be considered by U.S. health authorities in deciding when the pair’s booster shot might be needed.
The data, which involved tests of 23 people, was published by Pfizer and has not been peer reviewed by the scientific community.
The announcement of the data and was released on the day of the company’s earnings call.
During the call, Mikael Dolsten chief scientific officers described the new data on a third dose of vaccine “encouraging.”
“Receiving a third dose more than six months after vaccination, when protection may be beginning to wane, was estimated to potentially boost the neutralizing antibody titers in participants in this study to up to 100 times higher post-dose three compared to pre-dose three,” Dolsten said in a statement.
Despite Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech’s booster shot plans, both Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a joint statement highlighting that Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this moment in time.
The statement noted that FDA, CDC, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are engaged in a science-based process to consider whether or when a booster might be necessary.
Google delays return to office, mandates vaccines
Google is postponing a return to the office for most workers until mid-October and rolling out a policy that will eventually require everyone to be vaccinated once its sprawling campuses are fully reopened.
The more highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is driving a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Google’s Wednesday announcement was shortly followed by Facebook, which also said it will make vaccines mandatory for U.S. employees who work in offices. Exceptions will be made for medical and other reasons.
In an email sent to Google’s more than 130,000 employees worldwide, CEO Sundar Pichai said the company is now aiming to have most of its workforce back to its offices beginning Oct. 18 instead of its previous target date of Sept. 1.
The decision also affects tens of thousands of contractors who Google intends to continue to pay while access to its campuses remains limited.
“This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it,” Pichai wrote.
And Pichai disclosed that once offices are fully reopened, everyone working there will have to be vaccinated. The requirement will be first imposed at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters and other U.S. offices, before being extended to the more than 40 other countries where Google operates.
“This is the stuff that needs to be done, because otherwise we are endangering workers and their families,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. “It is not fair to parents to be expected to come back to work and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with unvaccinated people who could be carrying a potentially deadly virus.”
Because children under the age of 12 aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated, parents can bring the virus home to them from the office if they are around unvaccinated colleagues, Wen said.
Various government agencies already have announced demands for all their employees to be vaccinated, but the corporate world so far has been taking a more measured approach, even though most lawyers believe the mandates are legal.
Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are requiring their employees to disclose their vaccination status, but are not requiring staffers to be vaccinated.
Less than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by the research firm Gartner.
While other major technology companies may follow suit now that Google and Facebook have taken stands on vaccines, employers in other industries still may be reluctant, predicted Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner’s human resources practice.
“Google is seen as being such a different kind of company that I think it’s going to take one or two more big employers to do something similar in terms of becoming a game changer,” Kropp said.
Google’s vaccine mandate will be adjusted to adhere to the laws and regulations of each location, Pichai wrote, and exceptions will be made for medical and other “protected” reasons.
“Getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead,” Pichai explained.
Google’s decision to require employees working in the office to be vaccinated comes on the heels of similar moves affecting hundreds of thousands government workers in California and New York as part of stepped-up measures to fight the delta variant. President Joe Biden also is considering mandating all federal government workers be vaccinated.
The rapid rise in cases during the past month has prompted more public health officials to urge stricter measures to help overcome vaccine skepticism and misinformation.
The vaccine requirement rolling out in California next month covers more than 240,000 government employees. The city and county of San Francisco is also requiring its roughly 35,000 workers to be vaccinated or risk disciplinary action after the Food and Drug Administration approves one of the vaccines now being distributed under an emergency order.
It’s unclear how many of Google’s workers still haven’t been vaccinated. In his email, Pichai described the vaccination rate at the company as high.
Google’s decision to extend its remote-work follows a similar move by another technology powerhouse, Apple, which recently moved its return-to-office plans from September to October, too.
The delays by Apple and Google could influence other major employers to take similar precautions, given that the technology industry has been at the forefront of the shift to remote work triggered by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Even before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, Google, Apple and many other prominent tech firms had been telling their employees to work from home. This marks the third time Google has pushed back the date for fully reopening its offices.
Google’s vaccine requirement also could embolden other employers to issue similar mandates to guard against outbreaks and minimize the need to wear masks in the office.
While most companies are planning to bring back their workers at least a few days a week, others in the tech industry have decided to let employees do their jobs from remote locations permanently.
SAN RAMON, Calif. (AP)
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