By Thomas Vecchione
Businesses seeking to re-enter the workplace are faced with a long list of considerations, from phased shifts and density reduction to near-term physical adjustments to the workplace. However, the overriding issue is helping employees feel safe to return to the office, and keeping them safe when they do.
Despite enormous uncertainty, the industry is swiftly moving toward temporary new standards for occupancy. Specifics vary, but most space users already are considering significant reductions in onsite employee density, with portions of the staff continuing to work virtually as other staff return to the office in shifts. Meanwhile, tenants and owners are quickly working to enhance health and safety measures in common areas and in tenant spaces, creating congestion free security check-in, implementing technology to reduce clustering, adding hygiene stations throughout buildings, retrofitting spaces to reduce high-tough points and spreading employees out in former cafes and break-out rooms to increase physical distance.
The industry is coalescing around these and other strategies, helping to establish a near-term framework for re-entry, but it is critical to note that no approach can be applied equally to different companies. To be effective, re-entry plans must reflect the innumerable specific characteristics of each business. What is the average age of employees? Where do the employees live and how do they commute? Which employees are fully effective when working virtually and which are not? Can the existing office layout be efficiently transformed to accommodate staff with less physical interaction?
Tenants and owners are approaching the monumental task of adapting to the so-called “new normal” in four stages. In the short-term — the next 12 weeks, or so — the industry is launching interventions, making temporary changes to offices and staffing procedures to move forward during the uncertainty. In the interim period — the next six months — we will begin to reposition workspaces and business with more permanent solutions. Long-term planning will begin in the mid-term, as we gain more insight into the future during the next year. And in the long-term — over the next two years — property owners and tenants will begin to implement larger changes to ensure future continuity.
Work From Home has been an eye-opening experiment, and re-entry into the workplace will be another large-scale experiment with many more unknowns. Chief among these is whether or not the measures now being implemented will help to significantly reduce transmission of the virus. No one yet knows if increased vigilance will enable a partial workforce to safely begin moving the economy forward from the workplace. Re-entry plans can be used only as a short-term guide to address an issue that is still evolving. The key to success for a plan will be its flexibility to adjust as circumstances change, and its ability to account for the specific dynamics of an individual company.
While the industry must soon begin considering plans for long-term changes to the workplace and to work habits, expensive and time-consuming placebo measures should be avoided. Will adding barrier panels between employees actually impact the spread of the virus? Making employees comfortable is critical, but investing significant resources in measures that have no impact on the spread of the virus could be counter-productive.
It is a near certainty that this crisis will impact the way we work for a long time to come. However, changes to the office will not eliminate the single greatest advantage of a shared workspace: human interaction. Collaboration, creativity and culture are obvious benefits that arise from working together, but there is also a powerful mental health benefit, a sense of self and a sense of community, that comes from gathering with fellow team members. A feeling of shared purpose and a sense of mission can be generated virtually, but it is much more powerful when we work side-by-side to reach a common goal.
The health of all employees is top priority, and it will remain so, but once the specific threat of coronavirus has passed, we likely will recognize that the office is necessary not only for successful businesses, but for healthy and fulfilled employees.
- Thomas Vecchione is a principal with Vocon