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What going back to work in an office will be like after lockdown

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Social distancing and masks may become commonplace in offices when coronavirus lockdowns ease.

Miodrag Ignjatovic | Getty Images

What will it be like to go back to the office when countries start to loosen their lockdowns?

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tuomas Peltoniemi was used to traveling to China, Japan and Australia for up to 100 days a year in his role as executive vice-president and managing director for the Asia-Pacific region at ad agency R/GA. But since lockdowns started during the Lunar New Year in January, he’s been based in his family home in Singapore.

And since March, when R/GA’s Shanghai office re-opened (complete with temperature checks, hand sanitizer, masks and extra cleaning), Peltoniemi has been devising plans for how some of the company’s other employees can go back to their regular workplaces for when shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

“I’m looking at it more from a perspective of, you know, what is truly and genuinely the role of the office space? … What are the expectations from people from working from an office space and working from wherever they choose to work from? … This return to (a) new normal, if you want to call it that, is not a linear, absolute date,” Peltoniemi told CNBC by phone.

When reopening in Shanghai, R/GA was flexible with how staff chose to go back, given that some of them had returned to family homes elsewhere in China or overseas for the New Year celebrations and may have felt uneasy about traveling. “A lot of the issues don’t so much come from the virus itself, it comes from the fear and uncertainty. Especially in Shanghai, there was no precedent for it,” Peltoniemi stated.

Research from jobs website Totaljobs suggests that, in the U.K. at least, people are keen to get back to their workplaces, with 54% wanting to do so by the end of June. The survey of nearly 7,000 people was conducted online between May 12 to May 15.

Masked meetings

Masks have been mandated by some governments for people on public transport, but don’t expect to see people wearing them in the workplace long term, says Sean McEvoy, a director at interior fit-out contractor Portview.

“It’s not a natural thing for us to run around with masks and gloves … the solution has to be in the space,” he told CNBC by phone.

Businesses may run in shifts, or only have people come to their workplace three days a week. Perspex screens might divide desks and boardroom tables might make way for socially-distanced podiums, McEvoy suggested.

A computer-generated image from interiors contractor Portview shows how office space may be segregated as people go back to the workplace after the coronavirus lockdowns are eased.

Portview

For Leo Curtis, a product marketing manager at Lenovo in Beijing, returning to the office in March felt “refreshing.”

“When I first went back, I was hesitant, but it is a nice thing to have a collective place to see your colleagues and have a face to face — mask to mask — meeting on some things,” he told CNBC by email.

To manage childcare, Curtis is now working from home much more than before the pandemic. “That’s a difficult adjustment — managing distractions and spotty internet connections,” but it’s made easier by communicating on WeChat for any quick issues, Curtis stated.

Office space

The need for office space may reduce, but we’re not going to see flagship buildings turn residential any time soon, according to Patrick Plant, real estate partner at law firm Linklaters.

“I don’t think we’ll suddenly see (London skyscraper) The Shard suddenly becoming a block of apartments from top to bottom, or anything of that kind,” he told CNBC by phone.

But, how offices have adapted will be up for comparison, he suggested. “Peers and contemporaries I’m sure will be comparing notes about what their organization has done or maybe what it hasn’t done … I’m a great believer in the physical space being very much a physical manifestation of the culture of an organization,” Plant said.

Eliot Wilson, head of research at reputation management company Right Angles sees more meetings happening at members’ clubs and says having premises in the U.K. capital is “hard to justify” given their cost.

“Banter with colleagues — that ‘watercooler culture’ — is a nice-to-have, but once you put a cold, hard monetary value on it, I don’t think it stacks up,” he told CNBC by email.

Technology may go some way to providing virtual watercooler moments. Panion is an internal social media platform for businesses, and CEO and founder Melanie Aronson said employees used it to form support groups and find others with similar interests during lockdowns.

Since January, it has seen an 86.7% increase in unique users joining hangouts it calls “gatherings,” for example.

Employee social media app Panion saw a rise in usage during lockdowns caused by the coronavirus.

Panion

Only a quarter of staff will be allowed into the London office of ad agency M&C Saatchi at a time — and on a voluntary basis.

CEO Camilla Kemp hopes that flexible working will attract a more diverse range of people. “We will open up the doors of talent too — making us a more inclusive environment for more talent who otherwise might not have considered a career with us, because they couldn’t physically be ‘in the office’ at conventional working hours,” she told CNBC.

For Peltoniemi at R/GA, life is never likely to be the same again. “I think the nine to five … it’s kind of out of the question now, actually. We did a global work from home survey for our staff and 95% of our global staff feel like they’ve been able to connect and do work at or above the levels that they had been in the past, during the course of the pandemic.”

And while the streets of a city such as Shanghai appear “normal” again, people’s mindset has shifted, Peltoniemi said.

“I was speaking to our leadership team and one of them said it feels like Covid never happened when you walk around Shanghai … When you speak to people more, so much has changed, actually.”

Employees are eating better, taking fitness classes and drinking less alcohol, and they are keen to make their working days more efficient, Peltoniemi said.

“Now that the sort of freedom of doing what we want was taken away from the teams, albeit for a short period of time, it’s almost opened up people’s eyes and minds to, there is more I need to consider than just work and the office life,” he added.

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Lebanon to examine possible ‘external interference’ in port blast

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Lebanese President Michel Aoun (2nd L) inspects the site after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 5, 2020.

Lebanese Presidency | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Lebanon’s president said on Friday its investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference, as residents sought to rebuild shattered homes and lives.

Rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s port explosion that killed 154 people, injured 5,000, destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun told local media.

Aoun, who had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port, said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.

One source said an initial probe blamed negligence.

While the United States has said it did not rule out an attack, Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has denied any role. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the cause was unclear, but compared the blast to a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, denied what he said were “preconceived” comments both domestically and abroad that the Iran-backed group had arms stored at the port.

He called for a fair investigation and strict accountability for anyone responsible without any political cover.

“Even if a plane struck, or if it was an intentional act, if it turns out this nitrate had been at the port for years in this way, it means part of the case is absolutely negligence and corruption,” he said.

The customs director and a predecessor were arrested later on Friday.

At Beirut’s Mohammad Al-Amin mosque, next to Hariri’s grave, chief cleric Amin Al Kurdi told worshipers in a Friday sermon that Lebanese leaders bore responsibility.

“Who is the criminal, who is the killer behind the Beirut explosion?” he said. “Only God can protect, not the corrupt … The army only protects the leaders.”

Security forces fired tear gas at a crowd in Beirut on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over an economic collapse. The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

‘Where is the state?’

“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” said Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district a few hundred metres from the warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for years near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by welding work.

Volunteers swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from a 1975-1990 civil war.

“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by wreckage as he was about to get in. “There is no way to make money anymore.”

For many, the explosion was symptomatic of years of neglect and corruption. “The problem is this government and all governments before it,” said Dr. Mohammed Kalifa, 31.

Officials have said the blast, whose impact was recorded hundreds of miles away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion. That is a bill Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt — exceeding 150% of economic output — and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and ceilings, have been overwhelmed.

“I lived through part of the civil war. I saw people being shot in front of me. But never has there been such a horror,” said Dr. Assem Al Hajj at Beirut’s Clemenceau hospital, which he said had treated 400 victims.

Hunting the missing

As exhausted rescuers combed wreckage to find any survivors, grieving families camped outside the port where their loved ones were last seen. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.

“We would like to go inside the port to look for my son but we can’t get permission,” said Elias Marouni, describing his son George, a 30-year-old army officer.

One weeping mother called a prime-time TV program to plead with authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found hours later: dead.

Dozens are still unaccounted for.

In Beirut’s Karantina district, a Polish rescue team took a break near a once three-store building that was completely flattened. One woman and her two teenage daughters were killed, a neighbor said.

Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head of a Virgin Mary statue was blown off.

“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked and his shin wrapped in a bandage.

“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here? The economy is zero.”

After the blast destroyed Lebanon’s only major grain silo, U.N. agencies helped provide emergency food and medical aid.

Aid offers have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations, the Vatican and beyond. But none, so far, addresses the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.

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Venezuelan court sentences 2 former Green Berets to 20 years in prison

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ID cards of people linked to an operation denounced by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are displayed during a meeting with members of the Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela on May 4, 2020. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro confirmed the detention of two US “mercenaries” among 13 attackers involved in Sunday’s two failed maritime raids.

Miraflores Presidential Palace | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

A Venezuelan court sentenced two former U.S. special forces soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolas Maduro, prosecutors announced late Friday.

Former Green Berets Luke Denman and Airan Berry admitted to taking part in the May 4 operation orchestrated by a third ex-U.S. soldier who remains in the United States, Venezuelan’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced on Twitter.

“THEY ADMITTED THEIR RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE FACTS,” Saab wrote, adding that the case will continue for dozens of other defendants. He did not offer details.

“Operation Gideon” was launched from makeshift training camps in neighboring Colombia and left at least eight rebel soldiers dead while a total of 66 were jailed. Former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who operated a private, Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA, claimed responsibility for the failed attack.

Venezuelan prosecutors announced that Denman and Berry, both decorated former U.S. service members, were found guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in illegal arms and terrorism.

The two Americans arrested in the coastal fishing community of Chuao have ever since been widely displayed by officials on Venezuelan state TV as proof of their long-held claims that the United States is set on overthrowing Maduro’s socialist government.

The incident also unleashed claims that U.S. backed opposition leader Juan Guaido had authorized Goudreau through a signed agreement to carry out the attack, executed by two of Guaido’s former political advisors.

Guaido and U.S. officials have denied any role in the attack. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would use all possible means to win the freedom of Denman and Berry.

A day before authorities announced that the two ex-Green Berets were sentenced, Venezuelan authorities opened the trial of six American executives of the Houston-based Citgo company. The six men were arrested over two years ago in Venezuela on corruption charges.

The case had lingered for months until former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met personally in July with Maduro in Caracas to urge they be released so they could return home to the United States.

Both play out amid hostility between Washington and Caracas. The Trump administration last year threw its support behind opposition leader Guaido, who declared he was Venezuela’s legitimate president, vowing to oust Maduro.

Guaido blames Maduro for the once wealthy nation’s economic and social collapse, while the socialist leader says Washington is manipulating Guaido to steal the nation’s vast oil wealth.

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As Trump bans WeChat, some in China turn to encrypted messaging app Signal

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The Signal Messenger app is displayed on a smartphone in Hong Kong, China.

Roy Liu | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s executive order banning American use of WeChat, the most popular app in China, takes effect next month, but some in China are already turning to an American app renowned for its privacy protections.

Downloads for Signal, an encrypted chat app that privacy advocates generally regard as best-in-class for everyday use, are spiking in China, a spokesperson for the app said Friday.

The Chinese government heavily regulates domestic internet use, funneling most of its citizens to WeChat, a multipurpose app that offers messaging, games and ridesharing options, among other uses. On Thursday, Trump, citing the likelihood that WeChat sends users’ data to the Chinese government, signed an executive order banning people and companies in the U.S. from engaging in “any transaction” with the app beginning Sept. 20.

It’s unclear whether that would require U.S. companies to cut off access to the app, but the order comes as Trump has threatened broad bans on Chinese tech companies operating in the U.S.

China’s Great Firewall, a censorship system that restricts citizens from directly visiting much of the internet, bans easy access to most other major Western chat programs. While a comparatively small number of Americans use WeChat, a ban would hamper those who use the app to communicate with friends, family or business associates in China.

But Signal isn’t blocked by the Great Firewall, both for iPhones via the App Store and Android via a direct download from Signal’s website, as Google’s Play Store is blocked.

“We are actually not banned in China, believe it or not,” said Jun Harada, a spokesperson for Signal.

While he declined to share actual download numbers because of a policy of not sharing user data, he said downloads in China began to skyrocket in the hours before Trump’s ban. “It’s looking to be on par if not bigger than when we made it to #1 in the App Store in Hong Kong,” he said, referring to a spike in downloads there last month, when China began implementing its National Security Law, which gave the country broad powers to crack down on protests in Hong Kong.

“We think that has helped us to get more mainstream awareness within China but also with the Chinese diaspora,” Harada said.

Signal gets high marks from privacy experts because it stores little information about its users and its messages are end-to-end encrypted, meaning a government that accesses them in transit would only see them encoded.

Yaqui Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she has long used Signal to communicate with people inside China, but cautioned that the government there could move to block it if it catches censors’ eyes, making it all the more difficult for people in the U.S. and China to communicate directly.

“Chinese authorities can block Signal if its popularity surges, just as it did to WhatsApp and Telegram,” Wang said.

“The bifurcation of the internet, the formation of two paralleled information and communication universes is becoming increasingly evident,” she said.

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