What will the office environment be like after COVID-19? Workplace industry insiders have been trying to imagine how things could pan out after the world’s biggest ever experiment in homeworking.
In the short term: Several commentators have also pointed out that there are also vital considerations in the short term as the gradual return to the office throws up new challenges for real estate management and HR.
For example, while social distancing is still in place, workplace layouts may change to ensure that office workers don’t sit too close together. As part of this, we anticipate higher demand for desk sensors to monitor how employees are using the office space and if they are keeping their distance. Sensors can also be used to keep tabs on cleaning operations, which will have a higher profile while the coronavirus is still around.
The return to the workplace will likely be a gradual process, and not across the board because some employees will remain working from home. That is partly because, having seen that a teleworking workforce can be a productive one, managers will be looking at potential savings on their real estate costs. In March, a Gartner survey revealed that three quarters of CFOs in the US expect to permanently move some on-site employees to remote working post-COVID-19 to cut commercial real estate costs.
There is another factor that may slow the return to the office. Whether or not people have enjoyed working from home, they may be reluctant to go back into an environment where they see a risk of contracting the virus. CRE estimates between 10 and 15 per cent of people working from home may not want to come back, at least in the near term.
We have been collecting the ideas of workplace professionals to try to get a clearer picture of what the return to work will look like and the challenges it poses for management. These fall into three core categories
- Employee and visitor safety – the primary goal
- Environmental safety and security – a basic requirement to ensure that goal
- Sustainability – essential practices for accountability and business continuity
Employee and visitor safety
Continuous monitoring and identification of who has been in the business, where they have been in the business and for how long they have been in each location could be captured to identify where regular cleaning and de-contamination efforts should be concentrated.
Our colleagues in the workplace sector think businesses could also require employees and visitors to provide certified verification from a physician or healthcare organization that they have been tested and are virus free before being allowed into the premises. This would be a huge challenge for HR teams to administer and for healthcare organizations to provide.
Screening at all entry points to the business with temperature scanning capabilities may also be installed.
Workplace safety and security
Many businesses may consider reformatting their workspaces to promote social distancing and prevent the risks of contamination.
For a clean and healthy environment:
- Confirm all surfaces are easily cleanable.
- Ensure the workplace has been properly cleaned and disinfected prior to re-opening
- Ensure all HVAC and utilities have been serviced and cleaned. Replace all air and water filters with certified equipment.
- Continuously monitor air quality, temperature and CO2 levels inside the workspace.
- Re-evaluate the practicality of “bench” work areas.
- Reconsider the materials used for cubical partitions and gathering areas.
The measures put in place to keep the workplace safe must become the new normal. Accountability for employee’s safety measures and workplace utilization should be documented and reported to management.
Businesses will likely want to incorporate informational locations (online and physical) to inform employees regarding available work locations, visitor schedules and maintenance measures taken to ensure their safety.
The bottom line in the short term
While the virus continues to pose a serious risk, the focus should be less about saving money on expensive real estate and more about doing the right thing for employees and, as a result, for the business.
With health experts predicting that a vaccine won’t be widely available until the middle of next year or beyond, management’s shorter-term focus should be on sustainable safety for the business’s greatest asset, its people.
In the long term
While the virus is still present, meeting the short-term challenges of a return to work will be foremost in the minds of HR and facilities managers. Businesses also need to take the long view. Lessons learnt from the homeworking experiment are likely to transform the office environment over the next few years.
New perspective on flexible working
Many businesses that have always operated traditionally have been forced to accommodate homeworking. As we mentioned in a previous article, they may now have a more positive new perspective about the concept.
Management are also likely to come under pressure from staff who want a better work-life balance now that they have tried working from home. By contrast, there will also be pressure from those who want to come back to the office. It’s worth pointing out here that surveys have shown most people prefer to spend at least some of their working week in the office.
The concept of wellbeing in the workplace was already gaining considerable traction before the pandemic. The arrival of the biggest threat to public health in living memory is likely to bolster interest in improving office environments through practices such as CO2 monitoring.
Where governments are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of business, companies may be encouraged to accommodate homeworking to reduce the impact on the environment from mass daily commuting.
All of this will see workspaces designed to be agile and healthy, not just to accommodate flexible working but new kinds of team working, connecting people in the building with team members working from home and keeping everyone healthy and well.
Expect to see workplace layouts become more fluid, as companies experiment with different physical environments. To do this, they can use sensor technology to evaluate and manage how space is utilized as well as monitoring the office environment and connecting with smart building technology to automatically adapt conditions for optimum wellbeing and productivity.
Information and communication technology has taken a leap forward because of the impact of the pandemic on working practices. It seems likely that we will see teams empowered to use technology even more to collaborate and innovate.
The future of work
Even before the pandemic, ideas about agile working and wellbeing were moving up the HR and office real estate agenda. While the virus survives, the focus will be on the health and safety of employees, but lessons learnt from the experience as well as the economic fallout will surely accelerate the pace of change in the office environment.