The Next Normal: Preparing The Post-COVID Workplace

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Bernice Boucher
Bernice Boucher
Bernice Boucher is a Managing Director in JLL’s Strategic Consulting group. She is Head of the Workplace Strategy Practice in the Americas and is a senior leader in the Workplace Solutions practice globally. Her rich experience working with Fortune 100 companies and corporate real estate groups adds an additional level of expertise to JLL’s consulting practice. She has more than 18 years of experience in workplace strategy and change management and is expert in advising clients on enhancing the productivity of their people, their workplace, and their real estate portfolio.

Preparing for our “next normal” could be a chance to revitalize our workplaces and help shape the future.

Staggering building entries can help employees maintain appropriate social distancing. Image by JLL.

The pandemic has upended the way we work, bringing both value and vulnerability to the physical spaces we share. While work continues from home offices and kitchen tables, the conversation of when and how to “return to work” continues to evolve. Many companies are putting social distancing guidelines into practice to protect their employees and communities, seeking and developing novel ways to achieve compliance, while still ensuring users have a positive experience in the space.

The road to workplace re-entry may have its challenges—from enabling safe distancing in spaces designed to maximize available square footage, to ramping up janitorial practices and making personal protective equipment (PPE) easily accessible—but this historic moment is also rife with the opportunity to rewrite old rules and help define “the next normal.”

As workplace leaders, now is the time to understand the larger conditions of occupancy at play, and how they stand to affect near- and long-term human experience goals.

Out with the old density, in with the safe experiences

Virtually overnight, concerns over the coronavirus sent most employees in the U.S. home with more than three-quarters of organizations reporting 80 percent or more of their employees were still working from home during April and May.

But it will take more than a flip of a switch to ensure that employees who work on-site are able to do so without sacrificing their safety, or the safety of others.

The pandemic is far from over, but even once it has ended, certain effects are likely to stick. Some level of the new anxiety people are feeling over invisible contagions will persist beyond 2020.

So as workplace leaders, we must devise both immediate and long-term ways to “de-densify.”

For now, this will likely involve some short-cuts to reduced density. For example, many companies are taking a phased approach to re-entry, bringing in only those workers who most need to be on site at first, then slowly ramping up from there.

Another common approach is to simply remove chairs, tables, and workstations to make it a no-brainer for people to sit farther away from each other.

Looking ahead, workplace leaders can use occupancy and utilization data to better evaluate rent than on a sheer cost-per-square-foot per employee basis. Instead, we can determine cost vs. return, based on what the amount of space allotted to each employee, at any given time, contributes in terms of productivity or innovation.

Occupiers have been increasing density for the past decade, with the average rentable square footage per employee in North America dropping from 228.2 to 195.6 between 2018 and last year alone, according to JLL data. At the same time, more companies are adopting workplace mobility and flexibility plans: 43 percent of North American companies had mobility programs in 2017, but by 2019, that number had shot up to 60 percent. So, while more remote work is likely to occur, so will de-densification, which should keep the demand for space in-line with typical levels going forward.

Wearing masks is a precaution employees can take while they are in the office. Image by JLL.

Flexible work schedules and locations could become even more commonplace, with more employers and employees than ever having experienced the potential benefits of working remotely. At the same time, many have also learned the deep value of in-person experiences.

In fact, one of our surveys recently revealed that only 4.9 percent of office workers would be comfortable with exclusively working from home, but only 34.5 percent said they expect to go back into the office on a full-time basis. Instead, the vast majority (60.6 percent) expect to mix up their work location between the office and home.

Armed with occupancy data, workplace leaders can make the best of both worlds: Create inviting, safe environments that keep both density and costs in check, while taking advantage of a shared appreciation for flexible work programs.

Re-entry strategies for the next normal

Beyond rethinking density, there are other key considerations in laying out a practical re-entry plan.

The first matters of business are to establish how and when people should begin to return to the workspace, and how to structure that space. Are there objective re-entry triggers and requirements to follow in your community or industry? How many shifts might you need to create, based on company headcounts and space capacity?

You may also need to reconfigure offices. Occupancy data and space utilization software can help you efficiently evaluate new floor plans, furniture configurations, and other spatial distancing strategies.

Of course, a workplace isn’t just made up of its offices and workstations. Develop a plan to avert congestion in common areas like lobbies, elevator banks and café areas. And consider where new safety measures might take place, such as employee temperature checks or visitor screenings.

No matter what steps you take, be sure to back them up with clear communications and visibility of risk mitigation efforts. Welcome back kits and experience ambassadors can help you strengthen workplace culture and rally support for all the important changes and processes you implement.

Ultimately, it’s going to take a holistic approach to develop safe and productive workspaces through and beyond COVID-19. How will new workplace needs affect larger portfolio and operating goals? What might you learn from a building audit about your technical systems’ readiness? How exactly will you need to step up regular cleaning processes?

By working collaboratively with other functions, you can begin to answer those and other important questions.

Is your workplace ready for the next normal?

How we re-activate the workplace and prepare for the next normal now could have lasting health, safety and financial implications. It’s a tough road back to re-entry. But it’s also a chance to revitalize our workplaces and help shape the workplace of the future.

Let us face this historic challenge–and opportunity–with an eye toward both safety, and innovation.

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