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No more break-room snacks: How wireless firms might return to the office

Some of the biggest companies in the US wireless industry have no plans to reopen physical offices anytime soon.

For example, officials from silicon and technology supplier Qualcomm said that roughly 90% of its workforce is still working from home. The San Diego-based company hopes to reopen offices at the beginning of next year but might push that date back.

Similarly, infrastructure vendor Ericsson reported that around 85,000 of its employees globally are working from home, and the company expects them to remain there at least through the end of 2020.

AT&T has pushed back its office reopening date. "We recently communicated to our employees that given the current circumstances, we are now planning for employees who are working remotely to return to their workplace in mid-2021," the company said in a statement to Light Reading.

And for some workers in the wireless industry, working from home is now officially permanent. Verizon recently announced it is hiring 950 new customer service employees who will work remotely on a permanent basis.

For an industry that grew up around providing mobility – life without a dedicated cubicle and wired corporate connection – the changes are stark.

The situation
"Many of our office-based employees continue to work from home, including our [customer] Care team," officials from T-Mobile wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. "If employees need to work from the office, we have guidelines in place, such as limiting overall building, room and elevator capacity, and requiring masks at all times except when working alone at a workstation. We also have social distancing markers and directional signs throughout our buildings."

Of course, T-Mobile, Qualcomm, Ericsson and other top wireless companies are not alone. Massive tech firms ranging from Google to Facebook have instituted similar work-from-home guidelines as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stymie the normal ebb and flow of office life.

"When the situation allows for more normal working conditions, Ericsson will use a careful approach for ensuring a safe return to the office for our employees," the company said. "This approach will be based on the local context and aligned to the local health authority recommendations."

Verizon has been toying with a return to the office, having set up a plan to allow up to 25% of employees to occupy an office at any time. However, the company said it is still "encouraging" most of its 100,000 remote workers to remain at home through the end of the year.

Some companies are boasting of their remote office successes. Qualcomm, for example, said the number of its patent applications has increased by 30% during the pandemic. And open RAN startup Parallel Wireless reported that its employees have been taking advantage of a number of Udemy online learning courses.

A different office
For those workers in the wireless industry who are returning to the office, things will look different.

Verizon said that some of its protocols include "adopting social distancing practices and managing the flow of employees in common areas. Before they are permitted to enter their workplace, employees are required to complete a training that reviews the latest guidelines. We have also introduced a Return to Office tool that helps employees understand and adhere to Verizon's on-site safety policies and local requirements. This includes taking their temperature as part of a wellness precheck and completing a daily screening to certify their compliance. Should an employee not have access to a thermometer, we are providing one through our ship-to-home catalog."

Verizon added that it is providing each office-based employee with five "face coverings."

Similarly, Nokia said that it has "enhanced building hygiene measures across our facilities, and offered clear advice on how staff can minimize risks by maintaining good personal hygiene, including reconfiguring office space, mandating masks and ensuring social distancing of at least 6 feet/2 meters."

And network equipment supplier JMA Wireless is requiring hand sanitizing, daily temperature checks, HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filtration systems, and CDC-recommended deep cleanings daily of office areas.

JMA has signs up in its offices to cover the basics. (Source: JMA)
JMA has signs up in its offices to cover the basics. (Source: JMA)

But those are just the changes listed in the memo. Parallel Wireless' Eugina Jordan offered some real-world insights into the "new normal" office experience.

"We have rearranged our kitchens, implemented self-cleaning drinks dispensers, no communal snacks in the kitchen (boy those BJ's peanut butter filled pretzels were the bomb)," she wrote in response to questions from Light Reading.

She explained that Parallel's offices in Israel and Nashua, New Hampshire, are open to those employees who wish to return. But she said that the company's workforce is now just a little more intimate and a little more forgiving due to "more understanding of each other's personal situation with kids, pets and other things that in the past were considered 'distractions' or 'not appropriate' for a business call."

— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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