Gathering the data to create the post COVID workplace

Andrea Shook
Now that COVID-19 has jump-started a global work-from-home experiment, many are speculating on the future office - what will it look like?

Will we need an office at all? The benefit of working from home has long been at the employer’s discretion, but in the midst of a global health threat, the office poses safety risks that will put the employee in the driver seat to determine if the health threat is greater than economic security. 

Even as many jurisdictions ease restrictions, many organizations have decided not to rush staff back to the office if it’s not deemed necessary. So, as office spaces are occupied at a fraction of the previous levels, and businesses face economic hardships, how can real estate managers make informed decisions about the future use of their office spaces?

How organizations respond during periods of great disruption will heavily impact which companies thrive on the other side of them. However, most office real estate is a longer-term commitment that doesn’t offer the flexibility to react swiftly. Yes, immediate adjustments are being made to negotiate lease terms and, most importantly, make employees feel safe when they return to the office, but that office will no longer support the same capacity with six-foot distancing—and it likely won’t be necessary now that many companies have seen that employees can work from home, and often more efficiently. Not to mention, capital projects are all but halted for most organizations, which makes it even more difficult to react swiftly in today’s environment.

One of the dilemmas today’s real estate managers face is that office refurbishments must meet the needs that typically span over the next three to ten years. Therefore, we must not only provide facilities for today’s use, but also project post-pandemic use and behaviors for the next several years.

As we all look for answers in times of great uncertainty, we crave information. Having access to accurate information has a big impact on our outlook and how we respond. This also holds true for corporate real estate (CRE) portfolios. We need to take the time to gather relevant data to allow CRE managers to make informed real estate decisions. Many of these decisions won’t be made in one fell swoop. Rather, they will be made based on real estate trigger events, which will give portfolio managers the opportunity to start gathering the pertinent information to make more informed planning assumptions at staggered points in time.

Human capital and real estate are typically organizations’ two biggest assets. As companies have been hit economically, they will look to these two areas to recuperate losses from the pandemic. Real estate has historically been needed to support the work of its employees and still provides tangible benefits of team building, innovation, collaboration, concentrative work, quick access to co-workers and social connectivity. As organizations look to achieve portfolio savings with a greater work-from-home employee base, how do we assess how much and which types of spaces will meet the organizations’ needs post-pandemic?

We need relevant and specific data.

We need to assess how many employees will eventually return to the office and how frequently. What are the right spaces and technology to foster collaboration and innovation? We must provide safe and healthy social connections, important to building teams and working with clients. We need to measure resiliency to know how working from home is impacting employee productivity and wellbeing and identify hurdles to improve performance.  What are the key drivers bringing employees back to the workplace?

At Faithful+Gould we have been studying occupancy of office space and right-sizing solutions to improve employee experience for more than a decade. We’ve developed customizable, client-specific dashboards that measure portfolio efficiencies and compare pre- and post- move survey feedback to determine impacts to employee wellbeing, self-reported productivity and alignment with core values.

Along with these customizable dashboards, we also developed a new tool that allows employees to reserve days they plan to come into the office. Much like an airline, employees choose a seat that gives them the preferred distance from other staff in the office which, in turn, provides data to facilities managers as they monitor occupancy against jurisdictional limitations and see how the office is being used. With reoccurring reservation options and dashboard indicators of when different departments are scheduled in the workplace, this tool enables effective organizational planning. Team leads can coordinate rotating days they want their staff to come together to encourage immersive collaboration while allowing individuals to reserve workstations that enable them to work closely to key colleagues, but at a safe distance. Additionally, with this type of occupancy data, CRE managers can improve employee well-being and make informed planning decisions without infringing on employees’ privacy by using other occupancy tools like tracking devices. The ability to filter by dates and departments and cross reference with meeting room usage provides an important piece to the CRE planning puzzle. We couple this with employee and management surveys that seek to understand how many and how frequently staff will come to the office and what those drivers are post-pandemic.

Deploying a tool that allows employees to align their office visits with their leadership and teammates and even choose the day and desk enables social distancing, career control and benefits their wellbeing. It also provides real estate managers real-time insight into what is most important to the office of the future. 

As capital projects restart, organizations will scrutinize costs and planning. That’s where we can help clients. Employee health and safety is paramount to bringing people back to the office, and we provide easy-to-understand data that our clients can rely on to make informed strategic real estate portfolio decisions, gaining resiliency during the pandemic and creating sustainable workplaces afterwards.

This article originally appeared in Design Cost Data magazine’s Aug/July 2020 issue.

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