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Back to the Future: Returning to a Distributed Workplace

When can we go back to work, back to the office, back to business as usual? The question is on the lips of many. While many are eager to see restrictions lifted, we must remain patient, and this time around – think and plan ahead.

May 19, 2020
By Pontus Kihlman, Director, CBRE, Workplace Strategy & Change | Written April 20th, updated and posted May 15th 2020

At the time of writing (2020, April 20th), a few months into, and in the midst of, the 2020 pandemic -and the subsequent global economic, political and social crisis- half the world has been under some form of lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. The blogosphere has quickly filled up with various advice for remote work beginners on how to survive working from home, to help the large numbers of employees and employers – who were caught off guard and unprepared – to cope.

While remote working, teleworking, working from home, and flexible working arrangements have been around for decades in certain organizations, it has still largely been seen as the privilege of a few and not the norm. Therefore, vast numbers of companies had to mobilize quickly in order to set up remote working policies, technology, trainings, insurances and remote working agreements to name a few. No doubt, many of those who are new to remote working are experiencing many pain points, which experienced all at once, are surely overwhelming.

Phase One: “The global remote working pilot program”

If you are familiar with John Kotter’s Eight Step Model for Leading Change, it all starts with creation of a sense of urgency, which alerts the organization that change must occur. This has been a challenge for many workplace change projects in the past, meeting resistance by middle management against remote work policies from fear of loss of control. But this time, things have been different, thanks to the pandemic and subsequent response.

The learning curve has been painful and steep for many, as teachers have had to learn to teach remotely, students have needed to study from home, while their parents struggle to juggle online meetings and remote working with cooking, cleaning, helping their children with homework and shop for their own parents belonging to self-isolated risk groups. On top of all this, comes naturally all the anxiety in connection to staying healthy, personal future economic security and the establishment of new routines and behaviors – not to mention getting along with everyone within the same four walls 24/7. The change has undoubtedly been painful for many, and this unprecedented “remote working pilot” on a global scale, has sparked the interests of many experts within the field to conduct surveys, to gain understanding on how they could be of help implementing better remote working capabilities in the future.

While the closedown of schools, universities, museums, restaurants, shops, event spaces and other public spaces is still on-going and white collar workers have been sent home from the office to work, the discussion of “returning back to normal”, and “back to the office” has already started. This reflection and preparation is a good thing, as now is the time to learn from the experience of having been caught off guard, and learn from what already is being done in e.g. Asia, where countries are gradually opening up. It would be unwise to follow up an uncontrolled remote working stint with an unplanned and uncontrolled return back to the office – and so we need to start preparing a gradual process for the future in good time. With the pandemic still out there and while we are still all working from home, we can use this time wisely.

Phase Two: Preparing for a gradual return to the office

Without a proper plan in place, a return back to working ‘pre-Covid-style’ will be filled with risks. And in all likelihood, going back to the way things were, commuting into the office by default, will simply not be possible for most organizations. The health and safety of employees and their loved ones, whether in a risk group or not, need to be front and center of any plan going forward. As it is hard to predict the future both on the time scale, and factors to take into account it is good to prepare for different scenarios. There is professional help available to plan and prepare, so don’t skip this part just because it may feel overwhelming to get at it alone.

Planning a ramp-up in stages that allows access to the office to people in stages may be a tactic. It can partly be based on the overall pandemic situation and regulations placed by society, and in part based on the necessity to have access to the office. People within service jobs, production and logistics whose work is directly bound to place (or tools & materials at a location) could be invited in first, on a need-to basis. Soon thereafter, work tasks that require certain data security standards to be met by the workplace and sensitivity of information, can be allowed access. Based on people’s work and mobility profiles, you can begin allowing access to an ergonomically better work environment to anchors (60-100%, deskbound individual work), flex workers (40-60% time use at the office) and mobile workers – in that order. In order to ensure social distancing and lower density, you can consider inviting teams into the office on different days of the week, by introducing 2 to 4 -day workweeks at the office. The keyword is “invite”, as there will be a significant number of workers who still do not have immunity and/or belong to a risk group, and thus should have the option to remain working from home from this day on. Many healthy individuals will still need to care for loved ones in self-isolation, and possibly continue home schooling and have other responsibilities to balance work with.

Phase Three: Re-think risks, the environment, policies and human behavior

Assuming that a) the various government restrictions are gradually lifted (at least for the time being, until a possible second wave), and b) that there will be workplaces to go back to, and c) employers decide to invite employees to use the office again – there will still remain both the real and perceived questions and fears of whether it will be safe to do so. Does the ‘herd immunity hypothesis’ hold true for this virus, and has it built up enough? Has there been enough testing of immunity and has a vaccine that works been developed, are just some of the questions on the minds of many. Even so, will these facts, statistics and probabilities be enough for employees and their loved ones to be and feel safe – especially those belonging to or living with the most vulnerable risk groups?

Even if organizations will be opening up again for business, we are going to need to change our behaviors for the unforeseeable future, most likely permanently. Preventive measures in both the physical and digital spaces as well as in services such as security, maintenance and intensified cleaning need to be in place in workplaces, schools and other places where it’s essential for people to go even after lockdowns are lifted. Workers need to be fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the “new norm”, both at the office and at home. New habits such as physical distancing, contactless greetings and handwashing will need to stay in place, possibly with increased use of facemasks and use of hand sanitizers. The need to meet face-to-face will need to be re-evaluated, and non-essential business travel will need to be clearly defined and discouraged. Contamination risks of the workplace by external visitors need to be managed and perhaps discouraged, such as visits by clients, partners and vendors, sales reps and delivery personnel wanting to enter the building. With a steep decline in physical meetings and events, business travel will diminish in any case – which will increase the demand for online meetings even more, and thus appropriate space to keep them in with technologies to support it.

Building trust in the workplace with open real-time communication

Real-time, shareable and actionable environment data is key for building trust through transparency and a sense of control. An easy-to-use interface, with digital visualization of spaces and their live occupancy status and air quality information will be essential for communication and a feeling of safety. Smart office solutions can help avoid congestion, and help improve hygiene and cleaning for shared spaces, and give employees a 2-way communication channel to voice their concerns or communicate needed fixes in a space.

Solutions with occupancy sensor data can help avoid the office at peak hours, with digital floor plans to visualize which desks and spaces are in use or have recently been used (eg. within the last 2h or that same day). This way people can avoid recently used (uncleaned) desks – while cleaners can see which seats and areas need more intense cleaning at the end of each day. A mandatory “check-in” policy, with a capability to book a seat for the day (before leaving home) can help manage congestions and avoid unnecessary commutes. It will help avoid sharing of desks, manage density, congestion and peak occupancy pre-emptively.

Phase Three: Flexible working and a gradual reopen – piloting “the new norm”

There will likely not be a sudden opening up of floodgates, with everyone going back to the office as before. Instead, in ‘phase 3’, organizations will gradually need to move to a model somewhere in between home and office – that allows for individual choice and tailoring based on the individual circumstances, abilities, needs and preferences. It is called flexible working, now also called “the new norm” by some. Even though new to some, many of these adjustments in workplace strategies (eg. flex work, “anywhere-anytime working”) and office designs (activity-based offices) have already been tried and tested- and are essentially just more wide spread adoptions of real estate and work culture trends that existed long before the pandemic.

There are many challenges that will greatly affect a plan for getting back to working at the office, and the ability to do so. These include:

  • Health and safety: The actual risk of the disease itself, versus the availability of vaccines and immunity testing, cleanliness procedures at work and human behavior, structural space changes (especially for open offices) and rethinking bottle necks such as people flows in elevators.
  • Psychological safety: Handling of fears and the traumas from the pandemic, the social scars and perceived risks, regaining of trust between people and the environment using frequent communication and technologies that provide real-time data.
  • The economy and business: Cost cutting realities, efficiency demands of space use balanced while having a rethink on more resilient real estate strategies – such as supporting working from home with ergonomic desks, chairs and extra screens over inefficient leasing of office space.
  • New habit and culture formation: Fostering a desire by leaders and employees to continue leveraging the remote working experiment phase, and to shift work culture toward more flexibility and choice, including the option to attend meetings remotely.
  • Optimizing the workplace experience: While remote working is possible to do under temporary circumstances, there are a great number of workers who’s work eventually requires a proper office environment. Reasons include a need to collaborate and innovate, use special equipment, find a place to focus, and to build relationships – or simply ‘get out of the house’ for a while.
Phase Four: Flexibility and resilient real estate strategies for the long term

The world economy impacted by the pandemic will likely be a long-term downturn, forcing many employers to cut costs to survive. Even if remote work and flex work may be less than optimal for many employees, their teams and supervisors – companies will try to reduce their long-term rent obligations and fixed costs by encouraging workers to work from home or other location, rather than let go of their human capital. Those people who are still employed, will now frequently work from home, while more employers will opt to downsize their long-term leases and supplement them with flexible office spaces and coworking memberships as needed, enabling people to commute less and work more locally, closer to home. However, this will not mean that the total amount of office spaces will diminish. It may just become more distributed, less dense, leased and accessed through new models. This remains to be seen. What the real estate impacts and needs for workspaces in the post-Covid-19 era will be, is a topic I will not make any final predictions on, nor make recommendations for. The only thing certain is that the future remains uncertain, and that it will be wise to build up resiliency in all strategies – including for work cultures and use of real estate.

CBRE’s industry experts are uniquely qualified to assist in appropriately planning and provisioning the office for a safe and productive return to work. They are there to help you rethink critical aspects of returning to work such as policies to support your people, space allocation updates, re-design and/or configuration of furniture, and evaluations to enhance building systems operation with landlords. In case you feel you might be in need of some assistance in rethinking, reopening and returning to your workplace, please contact us to learn more about CBRE Workplace Reset Services.


Disclaimer: This article has been written upon request by CBRE Finland, to provide readers a personal reflection in an on-going, uncertain and constantly changing reality with some hazy views of the future and only tidbits of data available. The writings in this article are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of any current or past employer, including CBRE.

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