In March 2020, many employees across the United States were faced with the prospect of a temporary shift to remote work. For many of those workers, the expectation was that their office would remain closed and they would work from home for a couple of weeks, maybe a month at the most.
But now, close to a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have no immediate plans to bring staff back to work. With COVID-19 numbers surging and no widely available vaccine expected until later this year, companies are unable to return to the way things were in January and February 2020.
Safety a Top Priority
Even companies that are able to start allowing staff back in the office have to consider how to do so safely, as it’s generally not possible to fit the same number of employees in the same space they used before while still complying with health guidelines on social distancing and other precautionary measures.
“But that model presents a thorny scheduling challenge that demands answers to a host of questions: what’s more important—letting teams have in-person time together, or exposure to colleagues from other parts of the company? How do managers adjust schedules as different people start and finish group projects? Does everyone have equal access to face time with the boss, and to the kind of visibility that leads to promotions and choice assignments?” adds Purtill.
A Role for AI
Manhattan-based digital solutions company SquareFoot has been faced with these very questions, and the company happens to be in a position to help itself, and others, answer them with the power of artificial intelligence (AI).
SquareFoot has developed an algorithm aimed at allocating scarce office space to best meet the needs of individuals, departments, and the broader businesses in which they operate.
The algorithm uses input from department heads regarding amenities, location, communication, and personal development factors within their departments. It also looked at the infrastructure needs of each group, such as Internet, software licenses, whiteboards, etc.
“They also dug into each department’s communications style and personnel make-up, tallying the amount of in-person discussion and passive information sharing each team engaged in, and their need to provide further training and relationship building for individual members,” writes Purtill.
Using Space Safely
After plugging those data into an AI solution, SquareFoot was able to develop an algorithm that dynamically allocates limited office space to different personnel and departments.
While SquareFoot’s algorithm may help with its own space-allocation challenges, it was obviously designed specifically for its own organization and needs and won’t necessarily solve the same problem for other businesses.
The development of an AI tool to assist with allocating office space does, however, highlight the challenge so many companies are facing in determining how to put the same number of people back into the same (or sometimes even less) space while keeping them safe and healthy. It’s enough of a head-scratcher that at least some companies have turned the task over to computers.