A Blueprint to Ensure Workplace Safety Throughout a Pandemic
The pandemic has turned something as simple as going to the office into a potentially fraught affair. Safety protocols are frequently updated to reflect changing conditions and new knowledge about the virus, resulting in uncertainty and confusion for employers and employees alike.
At Colliers International, when the pandemic began, we leveraged our IT infrastructure to implement measures to keep our people healthy. Our employees have had the option of working from home or at one of our 80 offices in EMEA, depending on their local situation and regulations, since the first pandemic surge declined and wave of lockdowns were lifted.
Standardising Our Technology Base
Colliers International is a real estate services company on a high-growth trajectory. I joined Colliers in 2015 and am now the Chief Operating Officer of EMEA, which puts me in a leadership role for both our people transformation and our technology platform. That same year we launched Our Enterprise Plan 2020 to double our business in the region. Over the last five years, our staff has grown rapidly to reflect the scale of our business.
Our history is based on growth through acquisitions; which have fuelled much of our expansion in EMEA. One of the issues with successfully merging companies is in resolving fragmentation in the technology base. Each of the acquired companies has its own IT infrastructure and application stack, and they all use different laptops, Wi-Fi endpoints, routers, switches, and remote access tools. This could make it difficult and messy to bring these companies into the Colliers International fold if not managed from the outset.
My colleague Richard Sharpe came to Colliers three years ago as the Head of EMEA Technology Solutions, and he made a strong push to adopt a cloud-first strategy. Part of that push involved implementing Cisco Meraki to standardise and streamline our IT infrastructure.
Cisco Meraki is a cloud-based infrastructure solution, and we can quickly deploy it in existing offices or when we're onboarding and integrating new sites. It allows us to put all our EMEA sites on an equal technological platform, and remotely manage all our wireless infrastructure across the region from a single tool in a central location.
As an IT professional, I saw the value in consolidating our infrastructure under a single vendor, but that required bringing all the stakeholders along to realise the value. Eventually, we got the green light—and we were all grateful for Meraki when COVID-19 hit and everybody was enabled to work from home in March 2020, almost seamlessly.
There was no one on site to manage the IT infrastructure at our EMEA offices or to create secure logins for remote workers. Fortunately, we already had Cisco Meraki in place and were able to vacate our offices and set up all our employees to work from home within a few days—all without incurring any additional costs.
Meraki's IT management tools also allowed us to start thinking about returning to our offices once shelter-in-place orders were lifted. Given the regional nature of COVID-19 responses, we had no way of predicting if and when we could reopen each of our offices, but we knew we had to guarantee the health and safety of our people when we did. Cisco Meraki was our technological foundation that would let Colliers International employees return to work without worrying about whether or not they were safe.
Monitoring Office Use
In 2019, Colliers rolled out Basking Automation across our offices. Basking is a Wi-Fi and AI-based workplace-occupancy analytics platform that emerged from our 2019 Colliers Proptech Accelerator program. The platform allows us to track occupancy trends, mobility patterns, and space utilisation rates in addition to identifying real estate opportunities.
Basking uses AI and machine learning to track devices that connect to a Wi-Fi network. It can "see" a laptop, desktop, or a mobile phone and will interpret that as a person. It is also smart enough to conclude that devices remaining within proximity of one another or traveling together indicate one person instead of two.
This monitoring is done without the use of sensors, and that makes for substantial savings, enhanced accuracy, and productivity in workplace management. Sensors can vary in price from $15 to $1,500 and more, on top of installation costs. This can add up if you're monitoring a 500-person office. Because Basking is a software layer that runs on top of existing hardware, companies can deploy Basking remotely, saving time and labour costs.
Our initial plan was to offer Basking to our clients, but we decided to pilot it ourselves first. The technology is so easy to use and integrates seamlessly with Cisco Meraki. If you've got a modern Wi-Fi system in place, you can power up Basking, and within a few minutes, you'll start seeing site-occupancy metrics.
It took us just three weeks to deploy Basking in all our offices across EMEA, and only two days to begin collecting actionable data. First, we had to determine the location of our access points in relation to the floor plans at our various offices to get a better sense of how people were using our spaces. Next, once connected, Basking took a couple of days to automatically fine tune the machine-learning algorithms at each location. Finally, we provided training to key stakeholders at various offices across the EMEA region. We showed our employees how to interpret the Basking dashboard and what to do if an alarm is triggered.
Repurposing Technology to Create Safe Offices
Our use of Basking was somewhat serendipitous. When the pandemic emerged, Basking pivoted from monitoring workplace efficiency to keeping workers and offices safe. Before we knew we needed it, we had a solution in place to monitor workplace safety.
The primary difference between its initial scope and this repurposed application was changing the questions we asked. Instead of looking for ways to make our offices more energy- and space-efficient, we started asking how many people were in our workplaces and whether they maintained safe distances from one another. Basking provides near instantaneous occupancy data so we can monitor employee safety almost in real time. It will generate an alarm if there are too many people in an office, or if they are too close together.
When everyone began working remotely, we sent out surveys to gauge their satisfaction with their new working conditions and we continue to ask for their feedback. We combine this information with data from Basking to see how Colliers International employees feel about returning to the office and to build our strategies going forward. We also use their feedback to guarantee the safe working conditions of staff members who have gone back to work at our various locations. If someone complains about too many people using the lunchroom at the same time, for example, we can see their concern for ourselves and figure out a solution.
Meraki Makes Everything Work
Deploying Cisco Meraki as our wireless infrastructure helped our rapid response to the pandemic. It enabled a seamless transition to our remote work platform, and we can use the data generated by Basking to help us plan various back-to-the-office scenarios as the pandemic evolves.
Our use of Basking is also a proof of concept for our clients. We currently use it to keep our workers safe, but our clients can use it in the future to assess how efficiently they're managing their own spaces. A tech company can rent a smaller space if they see that nobody is meeting in their conference rooms. If an online shopping company sees that their office space is underutilised, they can reduce its footprint by only paying for warehouse space. The more data you can harvest, the better, especially if it's live and organic.
Wi-Fi technology remains invisible to most people, but it is the foundation that makes everything work. Cisco Meraki helps Colliers International keep our people safe during the pandemic, and it will power our wireless infrastructure long after the crisis is over.
I don't have a crystal ball, and I couldn't tell you what the future holds. Right now, our number one priority is keeping everyone healthy, happy, and productive until everything gets to a more usual normal—whenever that is and whatever it looks like.