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In the post-pandemic workplace, will employees be gathering in a virtual meeting room, represented by Playmobil-esque avatars? That is one of the possibilities proposed by new technology for the new hybrid office space.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a May 21 LinkedIn post about the future of hybrid work, employees want both flexible remote-work possibilities as well as the opportunity for in-person collaboration post-pandemic. Arguably, the combination of these two demands could require strapping on a virtual-reality headset for meetings.

Like the sudden switch to remote work at the beginning of the health crisis, the new hybrid office model will require adjustments and innovation.

Regarding physical spaces, Nadella said, “It starts with prioritizing employee safety.”

Reassuring employees and potential hires

Many companies are having difficulty recruiting right now, and no small part of that is due to residual fear about the safety of returning to enclosed spaces with other workers even as more people receive vaccinations, experts say. Companies need to reassure workers who are hesitant to rejoin the labor market by taking precautions against the coronavirus.

The National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics polled 8,000 people in different industries in May. Almost half of respondents (48 percent) said they would need to be vaccinated to feel comfortable returning to work, 35 percent said their co-workers would need to be vaccinated and 34 percent said they would need social distancing at work. Still, one in 10 people said nothing would make them feel comfortable working around other people.

“Even those who are currently employed are hesitant to return to their workplaces immediately,” Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere,” told The New York Times. “It takes time to secure workplaces and give people confidence that they will be safe.”

Rich Mines, CEO of the New York furniture dealership WB Wood, agreed.

“Many businesses may be underestimating the changes needed to optimize workplaces for health and safety and accommodate the evolving requirements of a hybrid work model,” he told the newspaper.

Sensors, cameras, apps galore

Silverstein Properties, a New York real-estate development and management firm, uses an app called Dojo, which was originally developed to help tenants optimize space, according to WealthManagement.com. Now it uses the tool to provide current occupancy analytics, which aid in optimizing floor plans and seating arrangements for better compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social-distancing guidelines as well as productivity.

The company also upgraded its ventilation systems to hospital grade and improved its cleaning protocols, adding such features as touchless entry and hand sanitizer at all contact points. Most of Silverstein’s more than 400 employees at its World Trade Center headquarters and its building tenants have returned to the office, according to the site.

Other firms also are taking an app-centered approach to health and safety.

California-based Vantiq offers a software-development platform that makes it easy for developers to integrate real-time data sources such as cameras, thermal imaging and acoustic sensors.

Applications developed on the platform allow users to collect data from different sources for “real-time visibility on what’s happening in the environment and what needs to be done,” said David Sprinzen, senior director of marketing at the firm.

For example, the company’s Back-to-Work Accelerator can track room occupancy, monitor employees’ temperatures, issue notifications for health checks and alert sanitation crews when necessary.

One insight the app provided is that microwaves are big gathering places in the office, so the technology makes it possible to alert sanitation teams when the area needs cleaning.

The information is “99 percent non-identifying” so privacy concerns are minimized, Sprinzen said.

Exceptions are door-control systems that identify employees if a badge or wearable is used. Still, data on the system is not stored, he adds.

“We focus on real-time, situation awareness,” Sprinzen noted.

Going forward, companies could take the framework and apply it to things other than pandemic-related concerns, such as tracking security incidents or creating alerts in case of emergency situations such as fire or physical obstructions — or even devising immersive shopping experiences, according to Sprinzen.

Germ-free virtual meeting spaces

Beyond technology that is focused on safety protocols, many large tech companies including Microsoft and Cisco are getting into the business of marketing other types of software for hybrid work.

Some companies are even trying to “transcend space and distance to collaborate virtually in new ways,” as Microsoft’s Nadella described Accenture’s Nth Floor.

The consulting group, working with Microsoft and AltspaceVR, originally built the mixed-reality space for a conference, enabling geographically separated teams to collaborate. By stepping into the so-called metaverse, a shared virtual space, people can collaborate in conference rooms, meet for a virtual coffee break or chillout in an “igloo room.”

“It’s a mixed-reality experience that enables people to interact with each other in person, regardless of geographic separation,” Jason Warnke, ​managing director of global IT, said in a company post.

Participants can present videos or slide decks, overlay themselves onto presentations or jump right into the virtual world using a virtual-reality headset.

“The great thing about virtual meeting spaces is their versatility — whether running an event to recruit students or onboard employees, showcasing new tech or hosting training or roadshows, the virtual environment can adapt to suit,” Warnke said. “I believe the future of meeting and working together is going to be a combination of physical and virtual events, with these extra places for folks to casually convene in a virtual setting.”

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