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Q&A: New Zealand MD Craig Skinner on Reopening (and Re-Closing) the Auckland Office

New Zealand’s Salesforce employees moved to working from home in mid-March and, when New Zealand seemed to have effectively eradicated COVID-19, started to return to the office.

The situation, of course, has changed in New Zealand, and will continue to change — the majority of the NZ team is based in Auckland and currently under stage three lockdown. 

“Going back into lockdown here in Auckland recently has been a real blow to the team,” says NZ MD Craig Skinner. “We’d just started to get back into the office and see what our ‘next normal’ would look like.” 

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from New Zealand’s experience of returning to the office — particularly as we see the importance of effectively managing ongoing risk. 

We caught up with Craig Skinner to talk about the decisions and processes for preparing the offices and the team, the insights gained, and how risk is mitigated.

What were the most important considerations for your team in deciding to return to the office?

The safety of our employees was the primary concern of course, and the Return to the Workplace V2MOM ensured that we would be guided through decisions and actions.

Our global Return to the Workplace V2MOM guided all decision-making and preparation. Try this template to create your own

The single most important factor in determining our readiness to return to the workplace was the level of control that New Zealand had of the containment/eradication of COVID-19. At the time we returned to the office, New Zealand was in the fortunate position of having had no community transmissions for a sustained period, our borders were closed and we had effective quarantine measures in place for anyone returning from off-shore.

In late May The Guardian reported that the majority of New Zealanders didn’t want to return to the office despite low risk of COVID-19 transmission — did you see that among the team?

Our CEO Marc Benioff announced quite early on that any employee would be able to continue working from home for the remainder of the year if they wanted or needed to, and this has recently been extended to the end of July next year. It’s a personal decision that each employee has made — as leaders we need to be conscious of the difficulty of those decisions and of the scenarios they’re based on, and make sure that we adapt the way we work to cater to everyone’s needs.

What does a typical day at work look like now for your team?

Globally, Salesforce has created a phased process for returning to the office to help provide structure, set expectations and provide a common language for leadership and employees. In New Zealand, we went straight to Phase 3 — we’d worked with our REWS (Real Estate and Workplace Services) team to determine the maximum number of employees we could have in the office while maintaining good social distancing, and were able to re-open at 50% capacity, with safety measures in place such as wellness check-ins ahead of arrival at the office and temperature checks on site.

A documented, phased return to the workplace makes sure everyone is on the same page. Try this template to create your own Phase 0 reopening checklist

We had split each individual team into two groups that worked onsite on separate days, so that we had back-up should someone in the team test positive to COVID or need to be in isolation. On each day that an employee was scheduled to be in the office, they needed to complete a survey about whether they would actually be there, and about whether they had experienced symptoms or been in contact with anyone who had experienced symptoms.

The tower we’re based in has a shared lobby and lifts, and most of the other companies in our building returned to the premises in a limited capacity as well. Social distancing guidelines meant that there were fewer people in a lift at any one time, hand sanitising stations were provided in the lobby and on each floor, and people were very respectful of each other’s space and safety.

The REWS team set up our floor in advance of people returning, removing chairs from meeting rooms and tagging desks to show where people could sit to maintain effective social distancing. They also replaced all shared snacks, cutlery and plates with biodegradable disposable plates and cutlery, and packaged snacks, placed sanitising and temperature check stations, and created signage to encourage behavioural change — like sanitising workstations or allowing colleagues to pass by without getting too close. The level of thought and care that the team put into looking after the safety of our employees was very impressive.

Signage encourages behavioural change — like sanitising workstations or allowing colleagues to pass by without getting too close. Download templates to create your own signs for building entries, elevators, workspaces, kitchens and meeting rooms.

As the country got more control of the virus, the local management team made the decision to re-visit the split team scenario so that we could reunite individual teams, but still have only 50% of employees in the office at one time.

We made this change because we found that by bringing the teams together again, we were able to drive more productivity. When you’re not together as a team, one of the biggest challenges is keeping everyone aligned and engaged.

What plans were in place for a spike in cases, like New Zealand has just experienced?

We had planned to be able to move between the phases of reopening — we didn’t hope to go right back to 0 of course, but that potential has just become a reality. 

With New Zealand’s first cases of community transmission in more than 100 days we revisited our reopening criteria. We’re under stage 3 lockdowns in Auckland at the moment, and our priority remains the health and safety of our employees, so the decision to re-instigate a hard-close of our Auckland office was simple. 

Like every New Zealander, our employees are disappointed to take this backwards step, but they’re resilient, well prepared and optimistic that this swift course of action will quickly get us back to a better position.

My concern this time around is the impact that returning to lockdown for a second time will have on some employees, so we’ll be making sure that we connect with all employees, checking how they are, and making sure that they are supported through this.

How did communication channels change as you returned to the office?

When in full lock-down, we started the day with 30-minute Google Hangout sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to check in on each other — these weren’t mandatory, but always had very good representation. We also had a Friday afternoon Hangout to round off the week — it was more social than business. 

When we returned to the office in the split-team scenario, we initially dropped all of the virtual catch-ups but the team requested that they be reinstated on Wednesdays — you can’t underestimate how the team will value staying connected.

Transparency is key throughout the process of returning to the office safely. We sent regular emails to keep the team informed of the latest developments, as well as sharing both the decisions and the decision-making process.

Craig Skinner
Use This Template to Create Your Own Daily Update

Now that we’re working remotely again, and we’re unsure how long that will last, we’re still running the half-hour check ins on Wednesday mornings — we’re using these to keep in touch and make sure that communication is a two-way street. And an invitation for the Friday social catch-up has just re-appeared in my diary.

For a full guide to reopening safely and building resilience, download the COVID-19 Response Playbook.

For a full guide to reopening safely and building resilience, download the COVID-19 Response Playbook.

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