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Special report: Companies considering new measures to maintain distancing as employees return

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Trying to decide how to bring hundreds of workers back to the office as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides is hard enough when you have one office.

But for large high-tech companies like SAP Canada and Global Relay, the challenge is compounded by having hundreds or thousands of employees working from various locations around the world. In some of those locations lockdowns forced 100% of employees to work from home.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, SAP Canada, which employs 3,300 people Canada-wide, closed all six offices in Canada. The SAP Canada lab in Yaletown, which has about 1,500 employees, is its biggest office.

“It’s our intention that we will reopen these offices,” said Cindy Fagen, managing director for SAP Labs Canada. “How we will use our space might change.”

Companies like SAP and Global Relay are looking at floor plans and considering expanding conference rooms to provide for more distancing and implementing “hot desks” – workstations occupied by different people at different times – for employees who will no longer work from the office full-time.

Global Relay now employs 850 workers globally; about half of them worked out of its Gastown office. Before the pandemic, it had approximately 400 employees in Vancouver and has since added more than 100. In total, Global Relay added 350 employees in 2020 throughout its seven locations.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Global Relay sent most employees home and maintained a skeleton crew of about 10 administrative staff in the five floors of its Gastown office building.

Over the summer of 2020, 50 to 60 employees returned to its Gastown office. Post-pandemic, the company expects some of the new hires to continue working remotely. Some may rotate, working part-time from the office and part-time from home.

Joyce Hung, vice-president of human resources for Global Relay, said many employees have indicated that they want to come back to the office once they have been vaccinated.

“I foresee it to organically happen in a way where teams will start coming back maybe to test the water once a week, and then when they get more comfortable maybe two days a week,” Hung said.

Global Relay is remodelling one of its floors to space employees out better.

SAP Canada plans to reoccupy its offices in phases, starting with 30% occupancy in Phase 1. Reoccupation will depend on public health guidelines, vaccination rates and daily COVID-19 numbers in the cities and countries where it operates.

“I’m very hopeful that, by the fall, we’re going to be in a good position,” Fagen said.

Even before the pandemic, SAP Canada had a flex-work schedule, and post-pandemic it expects some employees will choose to work a flex schedule permanently.

Added Fagen, “We’re predicting that the way we use space is also going to be different.”

– nbennett@biv.com