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Within International Geneva, a gradual return to the office

People having lunch in the small park behind the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) on 23 July, 2021. (Credits: Nicolas Camut)

Around the Place des Nations, International Geneva is slowly coming back to life. However, with only progressive plans to return to the office, it is still far from buzzing with activity.

On a sunny lunch break, lines of United Nations (UN) employees, recognisable by the badges they wear around the necks, are back at the food truck that is parked every day in front of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) building.

“I enjoy seeing my colleagues, grabbing a coffee and going for lunch walks,” says a UN employee Geneva Solutions spoke to at a square nearby. “I also sometimes miss the commute; getting dressed for work, taking the train,” she adds.

Restaurant terraces in the area are busy. But the empty tables inside serve as a reminder that the district is not yet back to business as usual.

Although Swiss federal authorities lifted mandatory teleworking on 26 June, most of Geneva’s workforce is still working remotely, as part of prudent reopening plans.

According to Google data, workplace activity in the Geneva canton stood 44 per cent below pre-pandemic levels on 19 July – with the most recent drop likely being due to the summer holidays.

Geneva Solutions surveyed major International Geneva organisations about their back-to-the-office plans, with similar results: in most places, the majority of staff is still working from home.

A scientific exception

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN in French) is the only one allowing more than 50 per cent of staff back to its premises.

The research laboratory recently put together a four-level Covid scale that corresponds to the epidemiological situation. Christophe Delamare, deputy head of the CERN unit which came up with the plan, shared the specifics with Geneva Solutions.

The scale is based upon the virus’s incidence rate and circulation in the area, completed by CERN’s “own appreciation”, grounded in the latest scientific knowledge about Covid-19 – an approach coherent with CERN’s usual scientific method, he explains.

Since CERN’s premises stretch across the border, however, their health measures had to comply with both French and Swiss sanitary rules. To address this, the organisation’s internal rules were “often stricter than that of the host countries”, Delamare says.

Since 19 July, CERN has been operating at the scale’s second lowest risk level, which Delamare estimates will mean the return of about 6,000 employees on site – compared to around 9,000 ordinarily, and about 4,500 at the highest risk level.

“At this yellow level, the norm is the return to work, but teleworking is allowed up to twice a week for everyone considering their particular circumstances, notably regarding office space, to allow people to work safely,” Delamare adds.

To each their own

Safety first: that is the motto driving the return to the workplace. Because, in the words of Monika Gehner, head of strategic communication at ITU, “Nobody will be safe until we are all safe.”

In all organisations surveyed, masks still have to be worn in the office anywhere physical distancing is not possible, particularly in shared spaces like conference rooms.

Other common measures include hand sanitiser dispensers, one-way traffic systems, enhanced ventilation of workspaces and signage indicating conference rooms’ reduced capacity. Most organisations also have rules setting them apart from the herd.

ITU, for instance, installed special door handles that can be pushed with the elbow. Staff also go through a temperature check, carried out automatically by a thermal imagery machine, upon entering the building.

But the high-tech award goes to Gavi, the vaccine alliance with offices at the Global Health Campus, where each member of personnel has to book a slot using an app linked to their personal badges when coming to work, to comply with a 20 per cent occupancy rate.

A remote summer

This also means that some International Geneva employees will not be enjoying sunny work lunches this summer.

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International Geneva staff passing the food truck in front of ITU on their lunch break, on 23 July. (Credits: Nicolas Camut)

At the Global Fund, an organisation seeking to phase out malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS epidemics and also based the the Global Health Campus, “the expectation (is) that most employees will continue teleworking throughout the summer”, says human resources director Patrick Nicollier.

While the UN is currently allowing back around 1400 employees at a time, at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), on the other hand, the plan is to start welcoming people back from 2 August at 50 per cent of normal capacity – around 600 people. WIPO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), for their part, will increase the number of staff allowed back from next September – that is, if Covid-19 does not get in the way.

Of course, there are also those whose job requires a physical presence, and who never really left, like security guards, technicians and other frontline workers.

For those who will come back over the summer, however, the mood is more festive. “I am, on my end, rather happy, because I think there’s a tendency to be isolated when teleworking, even though we’re more productive,” says an officer from a UN specialised agency. “We take back-to-back training courses, but without properly planning lunch or dinner breaks,” they add.

The new normal

Many have also gotten used to working from home, and are not ready to give that up yet. “I think we should go back to work, but many people don’t want to go back,” a World Trade Organization (WTO) employee says.

For people to want to come back, there needs to be flexibility around work schedules, she adds: “People don’t want to commute for hours to be at the office at eight in the morning.”

Diana Rizzolio, coordinator of the Geneva Environment Network, agrees. “Many [colleagues] want flexible working arrangements when we go back to a new normal.” she says. “The future is hybrid.”

Employers are aware of this change: all surveyed organisations are developing flexible working arrangements, with some time spent working from home.

These are already in place at the UN – whose guidelines allow staff to telecommute up to three days a week since 2018. They are set to come into force in the next few months at CERN, Gavi, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).

Meanwhile, similar policies are still being discussed at ILO, ITU and the Global Fund.

It does not go without some logistical adjustments. WIPO for example provided their employees with additional, take-home equipment like screens and keyboards, to facilitate the transition to teleworking.

According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, 34.1 per cent of the country’s workforce, or 1.5 million people, worked remotely in 2020 – 400,000 more than the previous year, largely due to the pandemic’s health measures.

However, at this point, the new normal does not seem to threaten the need for office space in Geneva, as none of the organisations surveyed are planning to move their offices out of the area.

“After all, presence on site and the possibility to meet one’s peers, whatever the occupation, [provide] direct interactions [that] bring something to innovation, to creativity” Delamare says. “And, from a scientific standpoint, I believe that’s truly essential.”

Future uncertainties

These adjustments might still come in handy in the next few months. The highly transmissible Delta variant is now responsible for three out of four new infections in the country. Meanwhile, vaccination efforts are slowly progressing in the Geneva canton, where just over half of the population has received both jabs.

With the risk of having to revert to remote working hanging over their heads, all organisations have prepared a contingency plan based on the evolution of the sanitary situation in the medium run.

Like the rest of the world, International Geneva is cautiously learning how to live with the virus. And, walking around in the district at lunchtime, it is not unusual to find UN employees keeping their masks on as they stroll outside.