Tech Offices Get a Virus Safety Makeover

When employees at Salesforce, the cloud software giant based in San Francisco, eventually return to their office towers, they may find that the fun is gone from their famously fun-loving workplaces.

No more chatting in the elevator. No hugging. No more communal snack jars.

Before employees can even go into the office, they will be required to fill out online health surveys and take their temperature. If they pass the health screening and have a good reason to go in, Salesforce will schedule their shifts — and send them digital entry tickets for the lobby with an arrival time.

In the lobby, employees will be asked to wait for the elevator on social-distancing floor markers and stand on other markers once inside the elevator.

These new command-and-control work practices are intended to help protect Salesforce’s more than 50,000 employees as the company undertakes a colossal task: figuring out how to safely reopen its more than 160 offices around the world.

“It’s going to be different,” Salesforce’s chief executive, Marc Benioff, said. “It’ll be more sterile. It’ll be more hospital-like.”

“Things that people love, like gummy bears, huge jars of gummy bears everywhere, aren’t going to be there,” he added. “They aren’t going to have a lot of trinkets on their desks, because we know that also spreads droplets.”

Salesforce’s vision of a more micromanaged workplace is indicative of the complexities that many businesses are grappling with during the pandemic and signals a significant cultural shift for office workers across the United States.

With their airy workspaces, fishbowl glass conference rooms and hangout zones, tech giants like Salesforce helped reshape the American office from packed rows of partitioned cubicles into open, shared spaces. The homey, amenity-filled settings encouraged collaboration and community — while reducing employees’ eagerness to leave for home.

But the pandemic has made unbounded offices a liability.

Now some of the companies responsible for popularizing the open-office tech ethos believe they have an obligation — and a big business opportunity — to pioneer a new normal. And they are selling new tools for employers wishing to emulate them.

Salesforce is staking out a different territory. After closing its premises in mid-March, the company drafted a detailed, 21-page handbook to reopen its offices. In recent company surveys, the majority of employees said they wanted to return to the office. Others who wish to continue working from home may do so until at least the end of this year.

“We realized that, because the safety, the health, the wellness of everyone is our top priority, we were going to have to manage this like we’ve never managed anything before,” said Elizabeth Pinkham, Salesforce’s executive vice president for global real estate.

Salesforce is also marketing a new platform,, to help other employers manage the complexity of reopening their workplaces. The system includes work shift scheduling software and a contact-tracing program to help identify employees who may have been exposed to the virus at work.

“I just feel very strongly that we have the ability to do something very powerfully here and to motivate this new workplace, just like we did in the prior workplace,” Mr. Benioff said. “Technology is actually going to become a critical part of managing our workplace, where before it was not part of our culture.”

Salesforce is trying out its pandemic management playbook at a handful of smaller locations that reopened in late May — in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul, South Korea — the first of its offices to reopen globally. Mr. Benioff said the company would apply any lessons it learned from the offices in Asia to subsequent locations that are preparing to reopen.

Company executives weighed factors like government guidance and declining virus cases in each region to determine when to reopen. For each building, they also redesigned floor plans to enable social distancing and instituted other safety measures.

Essentially, Salesforce is approaching the pandemic as if it were a software engineering problem. It has deconstructed the complex process of reopening into individual measures that, taken together, are expected to make the workplace safer and reduce the risks of coronavirus outbreaks.

Will the engineering approach work? Find out in the full article below.


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