The unprecedented closure of nearly every workplace in the world due to COVID-19 has, and continues, to create unexpected and intense demands on corporate real estate (CRE) groups. CRE professionals and facility managers had to quickly assess the safety of their workplaces and risk to employees—then navigate how to respond as the situation changed with incredible speed.
Thankfully, their efforts bore fruit. Many organizations launched contact tracing programs—coordinated with public health officials—to quantify risk and support employee safety. Once the decision was made to close offices, the move to remote work resulted in less-than-expected disruption for most functions.
With business continuity plans in place, CRE professionals and facility managers are focused on another challenge: effectively and responsibly managing the return to the workplace. This effort is complicated by a diverse set of circumstances with overlapping—and sometimes conflicting—regional regulations and simply not knowing how the pandemic will unfold.
Archibus created this guide based on experience and the thought leadership of accomplished real estate professionals and facility managers—our customers.
Journey to the New Normal
Many companies quickly and effectively shut down workplaces and transitioned to work from home thanks to business continuity planning by real estate and facility management groups. The graphic below represents the typical journey organizations are taking as they manage the initial impact of the pandemic and an eventual return to the office. This journey is consistent with the response of Archibus clients across all regions and industries.
The process of moving teams back to work and managing modified workplace operations requires a highly coordinated effort based on four key steps: Situational Awareness, Workplace Planning, Workforce Enablement, and Monitor & Adjust.
As organizations move through their COVID-19 response stages, each step should be considered to ensure the proper data collection, planning, and execution.
Each step provides practical guidance from industry leaders on high-level action items or considerations, plus suggestions and best practices.
It is important to consider which initiatives should be delayed, accelerated, or newly considered. Many businesses are using this time to accelerate or introduce new strategic projects, including:
- Enabling long-term work-from-home (WFH) policies
- Increasing flex space use
- Improving data capture to measure utilization and proximity
Utilization tracking through smart sensors, which may have been considered impractical or unnecessary in the past, are quickly becoming a priority to CRE and facility management leaders as the desire for better understanding of utilization aligns with a need for safety and risk management. We will explore these choices and uses later.
Responding effectively in a crisis requires detailed, accurate information for employees and locations. But managing the move back to the office requires additional data, such as understanding cases and risks.
The use of a quality Integrated Workplace Management System (IWMS), combined with location sensing technologies such as badges, sensors and our sister company’s Serraview Live, provides the means to collect, manage, and use necessary data.
Visibility into regional conditions at each of your workplace locations is critical in determining where to focus your planning efforts and move-back timing. Continued awareness is important to spot changes in health risks, regulations, and employee sentiment.
In addition to regional awareness, it is important to stay apprised of your own workplace data. Used together, regional and workplace awareness give leadership the insight needed to focus on the right areas, identify risks, make decisions, and properly execute any necessary changes.
Improved workplace awareness drives an increased focus on improving utilization data capture techniques, such as badge system integration, sensors, and smart office software. While these solutions have always been highly desired for workplace optimization, they are typically sidelined due to cost or competing interests.
Many organizations are now fast-tracking such solutions to prepare for physical distancing regulations and safety protocols. As more people return to the office, these systems can monitor proper distancing, track workplace usage patterns and promote safety.
Effective situational awareness can help organizations to develop streamlined workplace plans while understanding which locations are best suited to reopen and when. Armed with proximity data, layouts, and risks, planners not only can consider spacing between work points, but also identify risks from common areas, entry points, and COVID-positive cases. The following high-level steps provide a guide on what to consider in your planning. By determining your approach first, the remaining decisions become much clearer.
Organizations are taking different approaches to managing the move back to the office based on their size, industry, region, and specific circumstances. We’ve collected data from our customer base and identified three main approaches: flex, static, and moves.
Leverage flex space to ensure first groups back have enough physical distancing (particularly as employees enter and leave) while providing for collaboration and operational cost control.
Use standard physical space and split shifts to ensure physical distancing.
Manage the move-back to the office as a traditional office move.
Capacity adjustments will vary by back-to-work approach. For those with fixed allocations, adjustments may not be required as physical distancing can be managed through separating staff into alternating shifts.
On the other hand, space restrictions are likely needed for those with unassigned or flexible seating. These restrictions typically include adjustments to floor plan classifications and physical demarcations of the workspace.
If space restrictions are required, ensuring proper floor capacity is a complex exercise that goes beyond simple “checkerboard” spacing patterns on 2D floor plans.
Real estate professionals and facility managers should first consider variables such as traffic flow, chokepoints, and common-area usage. Once rules and decision criteria are established around these variables, tools such as spacing reports can be used to create safe seating patterns.
In all cases, adjustments to collaboration spaces, such as conference rooms and closing of certain common areas, must be evaluated given distancing requirements.
Generally, capacity planning is an important exercise that requires care and attention. If armed with data and decision criteria that are based on real world variables, real estate professionals and facility managers may be able to effectively create a safe capacity plan without the need for rework once the space is occupied and working conditions are established.
Determining which employees return and when is a matter of business criticality and suitability to return. The three typical sources for classification types are:
Corporate Real Estate
CRE creates scenarios based on previously provided information, ratios, or other techniques.
Those with the most understanding of business needs and circumstances make selections based on guidelines.
Many organizations are allowing employees to opt-out of planned returns, while the COVID-19 response plan is still in place.
As decisions are made, regarding criticality of staff and the timing of re-entry, consider garnering input from employees. Regardless of your policy, it is critical to be clear on rules and expectations and make it easy to engage.
Additionally, this extended work-from-home environment has some organizations debating permanent changes to remote work policies. If considering long-term policy changes, under what circumstances will remote work be granted? Possibilities may include demonstration of productivity, demand management, and employee sentiment.
Armed with critical staff and availability, our next step is developing appropriate grouping techniques. Choices include:
Segment staff into alternating times to preserve proper spacing allocations and accelerate return timeline.
Separate staff by re-entry date to manage occupancy by criticality.
Designate flex seating areas for teams to ease logistics and facilitate collaboration opportunities.
Managing an office move-back is more than just an operational exercise. There is a human element that must be addressed. Many of your employees have been working from home for some time and want to feel safe in their return. Communicating the precautions you have in place is a great first step, but it also means providing them the tools and resources they need to stay safe upon their return.
Provide your staff with all the information they need to prepare to come back to the office while giving them the confidence that their return will be safe and productive.
Details such as how to enter the office or use common areas to adhere to new health protocols will help remove uncertainty while giving them confidence that thoughtful actions are being taken for staff.
Finally, be prepared to address negative sentiment. Continuous and clear communication with employees is critical.
A productive first day includes having the means to find spaces and the people with which they need to collaborate. The most effective method could be a mobile application, as it allows employees to have easy access regardless of location. It also eliminates the need for employees to touch kiosks or engage with a variety of systems.
Monitor and Adjust
Effectiveness in monitoring and adjusting means having clear visibility into how your employees interact with your space, how the space supports their needs, how often spaces are being thoroughly cleaned, and risks both inside and outside of the office. Leaders will be expected to act quickly and effectively as situations change. Careful consideration should be placed on whether current methods are adequate to address the items below.
Understanding the location of employees and how they interact with the space, can provide clear insight into risks caused by rising proximity or positive cases. Conversely, utilization data provides a clear understanding of how space is being used (or not) despite being open.
Other benefits include:
- Monitoring effectiveness of common area guidelines
- Detecting size and frequency of groups congregating above guidelines
- Implementing mitigation plans as risks are identified
- Performing contact tracing when positive cases are reported
Insights from Data
Enriching employee and location data with additional sources like public health data, provides quick and powerful insights into what locations need attention and how.
Mapping real-time insights to location data provides the ability to spot trends before they become problematic and provide more agility in case of a spike, an outbreak in your office, or a large change in work style or capacity.
Maintaining a clean workplace is critical to mitigating the risk of potential infections spreading. Continuous cleaning strategies focus on daily cleaning of any shared workstations, as well as on any major areas of traffic. Some areas, like common lounges, may be better off closed down. While these calculations are specific to each workplace, all can benefit from a system for planning and requesting workplace services. Preventive maintenance tools enable real estate professionals and facility managers to schedule regular cleaning through automated work orders across the workplace. Mobile service requests can allow anyone in the workplace to request cleaning.
The impact of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time as science and data suggest the likeliness of future spikes. Regardless of what the new normal may bring, the processes and technologies that are put in place today can help provide the core infrastructure to spot trends earlier and adapt and respond to change faster. They also can also provide the framework to better manage the workplace while giving employees more control of how they use it.
Moving forward, organizations will likely reevaluate their real estate footprint especially with the expected up-tick in the amount of time employees work from home. Having a clear view of your assets and how they are utilized, can provide you more intelligence around how to optimize your space whether you’re in the middle of a pandemic or not.
For more resources on back-to-work, please visit https://info.archibus.com/backtowork.
Founded in Boston, in 1983, Archibus is the originator of IWMS software and the most trusted name in Workplace, Real Estate and Facilities Management. Archibus provides the world’s leading organizations with end-to-end insight on their built-environment, helping them reduce real estate costs, optimize operations, and elevate their employee experience.