IBM’s chief medical officer: We won’t rush to bring people back

But the company has big plans for their return to the office.

A team of experts, including physicians, nurses and industrial hygienists, have been figuring out how best to bring employees back.

CNN Business recently spoke with Dr. Lydia Campbell, vice president and chief medical officer for IBM Corporate Health & Safety.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length):

What will the return to the office look like for IBM’s employees?

As we think about returning to work and as countries and states start to move toward reopening, health and safety are going to be paramount to our response around that.

We really are looking at a couple of different gates or measurements when we think about return to work. The first: ‘When does the government reopen? When do they feel it is safe from a transmission and number of cases perspective?’

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Number two for us is going to be looking at: Who are those employees whose jobs or whose productivity is going to be enhanced by actually being back physically in the workplace?

But I don’t think you will see us rush to bring people back to work if there is not a need to do so.

Do you foresee bringing back everybody or will some people remain remote?

I think what we realize at IBM and what most large employers realize is that this pandemic is going to make us all think about new ways of working and different approaches to work.

I don’t think there has been any definitive decision made on that. Right now, we are assessing that. We’ll look at as we come back in waves — looking at who needs to be at work first based on need to access workplace equipment, need to work in groups, need to have better access to internet, etc. — then slowly enlarging the number of people who are here. We will get to some number that is probably less than 100%, probably in the next several months.

But I do think what will change from now on, is we will think about the need for social distancing, the need for enhanced sanitation and cleaning, and I think that in some ways we may arrive at a situation in the future where in our new ways of working, not everyone is required to be at work or where people have more of a rotational work schedule where they are in the office on certain days and on other days they work from home.

What are some of the biggest changes at IBM when offices reopen?

We’ve produced a lot of educational and situational videos to help employees visualize what their workspace and return to work might look like. In many of our places today where employees are coming into the office, it starts before they even leave their home with a self screening that asks them about their Covid risk: Have they been around anyone who is either a confirmed or suspected case of Covid? Have they had some of the cardinal symptoms of Covid, breathlessness, fever and other things?

We’re providing our employees with masks, hand sanitizer and other things that are recommended by the CDC and the WHO.

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At some work sites, where required by law or because of the working situation in the office, it makes sense to do onsite screening. Meaning after their self-check, some employees are checked at the point of entry to the workplace. In our workplaces today, there are demarcated social distancing much like you might see at the mall. On our monitors and videos, employees can see reminders of how they should social distance in elevators and capacity limits and things like that.

With our cafeterias, we’ve changed the way in which employees are serviced so there are fewer touch points, in addition to having enhanced cleaning regimens in common areas and cafeterias, restrooms, etc.

How do you see work life changing?

Initially, in the early phases we won’t have people gather in conference rooms. We will limit those to single use or use by maybe two people, with very specific guidance with social distance and what needs to be done in terms of cleanliness to reduce transmission.

We have several tools like WebEx, Slack, Trello, and other tools that we use to collaborate and bring our employees together visually.

What are you going to be asking of employees in terms of keeping themselves safe and others?

We have been conducting regular surveys of our employees to get their views, asking them, “Are they OK?” There has been a lot of concern about social isolation and employees who are now not only employees, but also teachers homeschooling their children, caregivers potentially taking care of elderly parents. There has been a lot of engagement around that.

Likewise, I think coming back to the workplace will be no different. We have employees understand that we are in this together, so they have joint accountability with IBM as we set policy.

What has the response been from employees about the idea of coming back to work?

For a lot of people, working from home is one thing if you are like me and are kind of an empty nester, so you have some peace and quiet working from home. If you are now at home with your two or three children and your spouse and you share a home offic
e, it’s a different story.

So for that reason too, I think people in some ways and some locations are looking forward to coming back to work.

How is IBM supporting workers remotely right now?

This is probably one of the areas for me as a physician I have been most proud of. We started off first and foremost providing training and education to managers about how to support employees, how to be flexible, how to show empathy for some of the different situations that people now find themselves in that eight months ago or six months ago we didn’t even have to think about or consider.

One of the greatest things I’ve seen is a lot of managers standing up coffee hours or remote social hours where people, through WebEx or through other video means, share with each other, just sit and have coffee — no work, just share and support each other from a social perspective.

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We held an “ask me anything” session where we allowed employees to ask questions openly and there is a group of my team that sits on the channel with them and answers their questions in real time.

And finally, and probably most importantly is IBM has shown great flexibility in our benefits plans. There was an extension of our plan to allow people to have time off, take more time off as needed for family for whatever related to Covid, their own illness, family illness to figure out how to support their children. And we also extended the benefit for telemedicine not only to our employees but to their entire household.

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