reopening the workplace

Reopening the workplace amid COVID-19 fears

Collaborative spaces to take on new importance; flexibility key to moving forward
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
By Rebecca Melnyk

Many companies are unsure of what the physical office will look like once employees return or semi-return. As provinces roll out plans to reopen their economies, conversations about health and safety guidelines, reentry strategies (and re-exit plans) and sustaining workplace culture are making the rounds in commercial real estate. Here are six takeaways from a recent Canadian Real Estate Forums webinar on reinventing and reopening the workplace.

1. Health and Safety Protocols

Provincial data in Ontario shows that 55 per cent of all COVID-19 patients are between the ages of 20 and 59—a number that makes up the majority of office workers.

“We know people will not return to the office if they don’t feel safe,” John Peets, vice-president of leasing, GTA, for Oxford Properties Group and webinar moderator points out.“ Most of us are situated in densely populated floors, collaborating with others, in casual, common areas, meeting rooms, opening mail, using kitchens and washrooms.”

Dr. James Aw, chief medical officer at OMERS, listed five principles for heading back to the office. Employees’ physical and mental health and safety should be paramount and directives from government and public health authorities should be followed. This is a “learn-as-we-go situation,” and employers should take a measured, gradual and conservative approach when reintroducing work from the office. Employees should also feel empowered and given choice and flexibility about where they work and whether they feel safe—some may live with more vulnerable populations.

“The one thing about this pandemic is we are all in it together—there is no competition,” he notes. “You also have to be flexible and nimble; it’s not going to just be a full reentry. You also have to be prepared: if a second wave comes back, you may have to pull back also.”

Masks and the workplace. Wearing a mask is probably a good idea if workers cannot honour the six-foot distance or may be in prolonged, close contact with another person for 10 to 15 minutes. This would also include wearing masks while commuting, if there is no safe distance on public transportation. Necessary screening protocols include home temperatures, symptom checkers and educating people about when not to go to work. Hand-washing and not touching one’s face are most important as the virus is predominantly spread through expository droplets.

Conducting temperature checks. Even if landlords roll out temperature checks, screening “won’t pick up everyone,” Dr. Aw notes. This type of screening makes sense in highly sensitive areas with vulnerable populations, such as prisons, long-term care facilities and hospitals. For the general population, he doesn’t foresee this rolling out in office buildings, except for some smaller businesses that operate in contained spaces.

Elevators. While two to four people will likely be allowed in most elevators depending on the size, the principles of physical distancing are key, along with minimizing close contact for extended periods of time.

2. Think about reentering but have an exit strategy

Ram Srinivasan, managing director of consulting at JLL, says reentry is like re-onboarding. Developing guidelines and recalibrating the work environment to align with physical and social distancing norms are short-term; applying this to an organization is the next challenge.

“People will need to adapt to new behaviours in the workplace and keep themselves and others safe,” he says.”Thoughtful communication and change management will ensure people have peace of mind.”

Reopening the office should be a gradual, multi-phase journey. He says some companies are looking at four to six phases of reentry, with each increment building on the other. The process should be non-linear in case infection rates rise, and companies need to think about existing as they are thinking of reentering, as well.

3. Maintaining workplace culture both physical and virtual

“Many organizations have used the physical environment to be a physical representation of the brand and culture of the organization, and used it to set the tone for culture and behaviours,” says Catherine French, director of global design and workplace strategy, corporate real estate, for Royal Bank of Canada. “We do need to continue to create a very strong and effective employee experience virtually.”

This will ensure employees have support to get work done, feel connected to the organization, have a sense of purpose and great communication tools. Srinivasan says the office building will need to transform to the new realities we face.

“We have used the physical workspace to embody the company’s workplace culture,” he says. “If we have more people working remotely, the digital workplace will become more important to embody and convey the company culture. The employee experience both in the physical and work environment becomes equally important. This will become a major area of focus for companies going forward.”

4. More about behaviour than space in the early days

“A majority of people are still going to be working from home for a period of time, so there is going to be a heavy reliance on technology as a way to connect us visually,” says Mandy Sutherland, senior consultant of applied research and consulting at Steelcase. “But we can’t just rely on the technology; there’s this behavioural approach around creating new rituals and more opportunities to connect in a more purposeful way than there has been before.”

When workers do return, they will come back to a space where people wear masks and keep six feet apart. Places where people typically gather will also be gone.

“It will be more about behaviour than space in those early days,” she says. “I think what’s really sad in the short-term is we’re going to see a lot of these spaces that were about developing a sense of belonging, where ideas are sparked, where culture typically breeds—a lot of organizations in the short-term are closing them off or eliminating them completely. But as we look into the future from a post-vaccine perspective, we know that organizations are going to want people to come back to the office to some degree because of those very things.”

5. Collaborative spaces will take on new importance

“People are not necessarily going to be coming to the office to do that heads-down work; it’s going to be about collaboration,” says Sutherland. “The need for more collaborative spaces is going to take on new importance because those are the spaces that support spontaneous connections.”

Design is going to be more “thoughtful” and focused on how people move through space to encourage, control and curate the views that they have into others’ work and inspiring things happening in the company.

“We also see more choice and control; it will be really important that space is matched to task, and people have opportunities to work in different places. There will also be a greater emphasis on a holistic work experience,” she says. “Organizations spend a lot of energy just focusing on the office experience; we’re going to need to be aware of those touch points in the work-from-home experience.”

Some employers may be looking at retrofitting to create less density in the workplace or new workstations to allow for repositioning people. Ordering products and redesigning right now is time-consuming, Sutherland cautions. For now it will be about “working with what you’ve got.” Workstation panels can also act as a buffer against the virus to some degree, but give people a sense of security. For the future, she foresees smooth surfaces and easy-to-clean fabrics that can undergo heavy-duty cleaning. Shared, ad-hoc spaces will become more reservable to allow for cleaning in between usage. More science-based, data-driven solutions are also on the horizon as new antimicrobial materials and hands-free technology are developed.

6. Flexibility a key element moving forward in the workplace

With a potential second wave of COVID-19, but also other infectious diseases and the ongoing threat of global warming, flexibility will be a priority for the future—whether that means workstations on wheels or more choices in where work takes place.

“One thing that will be critical above all else is that organizations need to invest in highly flexible spaces that can quickly adapt to whatever crisis hits, whether it’s medical, economic or environmental,” says Sutherland. “Those companies that have the ability to pivot and respond quickly to whatever change will definitely be ahead, especially as new policies emerge.”

Many people may have become accustomed to working from home without the long, expensive commute. Meanwhile, businesses are still operating and productivity hasn’t declined. This all impacts space demand, Srinivasan notes. Some companies are thinking of taking on more space; others are getting rid of space.

“This will vary from industry to industry and company to company, but the biggest mistake we can make is to look forward through the rearview mirror and try to apply old paradigms,” he says. “We have to be open to new opportunities to keep learning from everything that happens along the way and keep applying those learnings. People are hungry to hear others’ ideas and we should continue to do that.”



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