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A pandemic as a driver of change: key elements to achieve contamination-resilient workspaces

The global COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the existing workplace was not always well suited to provide for the health and safety of occupants. In the months following the massive shutdown of workspace around the world; owners, occupiers and their advisors have developed significant measures. Not only to address immediate concerns around COVID-19, but also to make the workplace more resilient in the face of other health crises that are inevitable in the future. This particular virus cannot be viewed as an isolated incident that will be consigned to history. In fact, it is imperative to see it as a catalyst for long-term changes in the way we use, maintain and inhabit our workspaces.

Recently Facebook and Twitter told their employees that they are open to the idea of working from home on a more permanent basis after the pandemic. Even so, the goal is still to create a workplace that is truly resilient, that can be readily adapted to address the needs of future health crises or other environmental and societal emergencies to come. The question is, are we able to achieve this and what would be the dominant elements of such a workplace strategy?

No silver bullets

Based on experiences to date one can conclude that no “silver bullet” exists to effectively cope with contamination risks around the workplace. This implies that creating contamination-resilient workspaces will involve an orchestrated and multi-disciplinary approach, addressing not only building systems and fit-out, but also behavioral aspects for the people using the buildings.

Recently, we wrote an article on eight key elements in the Corporate Real Estate Journal. Key elements of such an approach are behavioral support, climatic conditions, cleaning, workplace setup, asset maintenance, access management, hazard profiles and information management. We would like to highlight two of these in particular because of the social impact.

Behavioral Support; a change in priorities resulting in an unexpected issue

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, employee experience most often referred to comfort, convenience, and community. After the first wave of the pandemic, that shifted immediately back to health and safety; Maslov revisited. In many cases, that has involved reversing employee experience measures that had been put in place prior to the pandemic, such as flexible seating and common use areas. As it became more important to limit occupancy and enforce social distancing, a re-education has had to take place. Much of that re-education has been in the form of signage and other public displays. Requirements to wear masks, wash hands and use sanitizing products became the subject of wall graphics. In addition, placement of liquid hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes on counters and desktops has become commonplace, encouraging people to alter their behavior by making products visible and easy to access. Additional signs might give instructions on use of workstations and desks to maintain social distancing.

Visual directives are the easy part. More difficult has been dealing with workers’ fears about contact with others in the workplace. For several months, employers around the world have gone from extended work-from-home orders to mandates that employees return to facilities, and back again. While experts have counselled employers to deal directly and sympathetically with workers’ concerns and personal circumstances, their responses vary. One key element seems to be flexibility: If an employee is caring for an aging family member, for example, it may be best to support that employee’s desire to work from home.

During the times that offices began to reopen (albeit temporarily for some), a significant issue also arose over parking as an unexpected result of another change in behavior. Many workers – and their employers – have become concerned about the safety of public transportation. As a result, employees who were previously urged to use public transportation are in many cases being encouraged to travel in personal vehicles, posing problems in parking facilities that in many cases were already facing high demand. Solutions include using reservation applications – similar to booking of desks or conference rooms – to reserve parking, as well as real-time monitoring of availability so that unused parking spaces (including those from no-shows) can be reallocated. In cases where dedicated parking spaces have been assigned, some organizations are asking those employees with spaces to advise when they are not used so that spaces can be released into the available pool.

Workplace setup; a catalyst for change already written in the stars

COVID-19 is having an immediate impact on the workplace setup on an unprecedented scale. The overnight shift to working at home by almost every office employee in the world was the first contributing factor. The second could be seen in offices where “return to the workplace” plans were being prepared. Where offices were largely designed to support high occupancy levels, meaning close physical proximity of occupants, we now see a change in workspace setup based on distance and low-level occupancy including additional cleaning and social distance measures. What will be the long-term effect of COVID-19 on the workplace setup? Maybe we should not overestimate the impact of COVID-19 on workplace setup in the long term but just see it as a catalyst of changes already ongoing.

Since the late 90’s, digitalization of work, changing preferences in work-life balance and changes in the nature of work have led to changes in the way we work. The early adopters of the New Ways of Working, mostly business professionals’ organizations, already enabled virtualization of work and working at home and saw their early adoption rewarded during the COVID-19 crisis with smooth business continuity. The rest of the world bridged the gap quickly and in a matter of weeks virtualization of the office and remote working were common practice. Where the early adopters already recognized a changing role for the office into a hub to meet and get inspiration instead of a fully occupied collection of desks and cubicles, it can be expected that most organizations will reconsider the role of their offices in a world where remote working is a proven risk mitigation strategy, a valued benefit by most employees and a significant opportunity to save on real estate and travel related costs and emissions.

Recent research by the MIT Connection Science group says something about the character of the workplace and the role of distributed systems, being more agile and less fragile types of systems that distribute power and decision-making over multiple stakeholders. Distributed systems are more local and bottom-up and by their nature more resilient to hazards and catastrophes. When the workplace, including its digital and virtual components, is seen as a system, the distributed workplace setup could be preferred in a post COVID-19 economy.

One could ask if COVID-19 was required to accelerate this change; maybe any disruption would have done. The unique push forward by COVID-19 however was based on the immediate ban on travel and office occupancy reduction combined with a sense of urgency that is not felt with a regular economic downturn or a more abstract, long-term risk like climate change. It is being said that the number of COVID-sceptics in C-suites is smaller than the number of climate-sceptics.

Closing remarks

As we mentioned in the introduction, there is no silver bullet to cope with COVID-19 resilience in real estate today or achieve resilience for the next contamination incident. But this event can stimulate real estate and facility management professionals to update their workplace and resilience strategies in a broader perspective and adopt an orchestrated and multi-disciplinary approach. The workplace ecosystem learns fast and provides new policies, technology solutions and best practices that help to build resilience. But the real value in creating resilient workplaces is not only in supporting organizations to continue their operations during a further COVID-19 wave, it can be a catalyst to change the workplace to a more resilient and adaptive way of working that fits a future generation of office workers and a more connected, sustainable organization that is resilient to more than just a future virus.

If you are interested in learning more about creating resilient workplaces, you can read the full article here.

Portrait photo of David Stillebroer.

David Stillebroer

VP Solutions

David joined Planon in 2002 as a consultant and now serves as Vice President of Solutions with more than 20 years of experience. He oversees all solution centers and innovations at Planon, and has played a key role in recent developments in energy and sustainability, IoT, lease accounting and business intelligence solutions.

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