Reimagining Facilities for a Safe Return to Work

January 29, 2021

By Kareem Yusuf Ph.D, General Manager, IBM AI Applications 

In 2021, millions of people around the world began receiving their doses of COVID-19 vaccines, bringing about a new chapter in our fight against the pandemic. As vaccine distribution continues, organizations around the world must turn their attention to the critical goal of how to safely bring their employees back to work. Each workplace is unique. What works for one organization is unlikely to work for another one. 

A safe and well-timed return to work has become an almost singular focus for organizations and their leaders. Ninety-two percent of executives say that workplace safety and security is now their top priority, according to an IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) survey. The pandemic has also altered organizational and individual behaviors in countless ways, from how we interact with one other to the ways we work and shop. Bringing workers back will require being ready for a new normal, one where offices and facilities have responded to greater maintenance needs, greater needs for open air, and greater flexibility for employees to do their best work wherever they are. 

To facilitate this transformation, organizations are relying on advanced technologies like AI and blockchain more than ever before. 59% of executives surveyed in a recent IBM Institute for Business Value study said the pandemic had accelerated their organizations’ digital transformation. They are looking to solutions like Watson Works, which apply data and AI to problems like workplace re-entry and facilities management, workplace safety, and contact tracing and care management.

For more information on how to make workplace re-entry plans, watch my video interview to learn more about Watson Works, IBM TRIRIGA and IBM Maximo.

Creating safer spaces  

Technology is key to creating a workplace that prioritizes employees’ health, safety and productivity. Solutions including TRIRIGA help organizations to monitor space and create new floor plans that comply to social distancing guidelines. Advanced new AI capabilities can now analyze floor plans and occupancy and make recommendations for facilities managers about the best ways to accommodate distancing and improve flow. AI is also at the core of TRIRIGA Assistant, a new chatbot that can be embedded into office messaging and collaboration tools to help employees book spaces and find their seating assignments. 

Even as employers look beyond the end of the pandemic, this digital transformation will continue, for example through the emergence of a flexible, hybrid workplace model. One lesson from the pandemic is that there are many types of work than can be done remotely, but according to another IBV survey, the vast majority prefer some combination of both remote work and time in the office. New working models will require organizations to continue re-thinking their use of space, even when concerns like social distancing begin to dissipate. 

Guarding worker safety and asset health

When we think about keeping offices and facilities safe and open, we also have to think about the equipment that helps them run, from the HVAC systems that keep an office building’s air clean to the advanced lab equipment used to create new pharmaceuticals. 

Organizations understand the need to keep these critical, core assets running, which means supporting the health and safety of the people operating them. Asset management technologies like IBM Maximo help organizations keep assets operational while also keeping workers safe, for example, by allowing organizations and facilities to monitor crowd density, detect face mask usage and designate certain areas as no-go zones.

While we’ve all faced challenges, we can see that the results from digital transformation will have lasting, positive impact. Agile workplaces will offer employees new flexibility while also ensuring they are still able to collaborate and engage with one another face-to-face. Though the way we work may be different, we have seen first-hand the ways that technology can allow us to continue innovating and collaborating despite unprecedented challenges and changes to our daily life. We should continue to embrace this digital transformation, even as the pandemic becomes a distant memory, to empower employees and employers alike to do their best work in the years to come. 

Kareem Yusuf Ph.D
General Manager, IBM AI Applications