By Dan Ryan
There’s no doubting the long-term impact this current pandemic is going to have across industries. However, for facility executives, and especially those in office markets, the last 30 days have been a giant reset button. Within a few weeks, the global workforce was thrust into the greatest work-from-home experiment of all time. Recent data across 15 million square feet of global office space shows workplace use dropped more than 80 percent below historical averages in March as companies and their employees looked to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
Corporate real estate leaders, facility executives, and workplace managers will need to continually prepare for radical fluctuations in employee usage throughout their response to the crisis. But what does this paradigm shift mean for the future of the workplace as we get past the pandemic’s peak and consider the safest way to allocate employees within real estate assets moving forward? It’s not too early to begin planning for re-introducing employees to the workplace.
Like it or not, change is undoubtedly on the way. As the worldwide emergency subsides, storefronts refill with consumers, and public transport resumes, we can expect a different workplace than the one we left behind. Here are four ways COVID-19 is changing the office space and the way we work.
1. Work From Home Will Inspire More Agile Workplaces
Although the health and well-being of employees will continue to be the primary concern for work and facility managers as they begin reintroducing employees to the office, it’s worth considering what will be on employees minds. Undoubtedly, their own safety will be number one, but they’ll also have new demands for office settings that allow for choice and flexibility in terms of where — be it at home or anywhere within the office — and when tasks are done. These demands will increase the shift to more agile and Activity-Based-Working environments.
Even before this pandemic hit, remote work was accelerating in the U.S. and beyond. As of 2018, over 5 million employees in the U.S. said they worked at home at least half of the time. Meanwhile, activity-based work settings have continued to climb each year and reached 26% of all office setups in 2019, according to data from Ted Moudis Associates. New employee demands, combined with critical realizations from the C-Suite coming out of the pandemic, will only accelerate the shift. Research from Gartner during the response to Coronavirus found that finance leaders said they will move at least 5% of their workforce that has previously been in-office to a full-time, remote schedule after the crisis has subsided.
The new normal for facility and workplace managers probably includes managing less full offices. Many executives now see remote work as a viable option and aren’t thinking about upsizing to a new office space anytime soon. Instead, they’ll be more likely to initiate plans to rotate anywhere between 5-25% of their staff remotely and find better ways to utilize their current real estate for the remaining percentage of employees in the office.
Of course, this new fondness for agile working setups will also be a boon for those in the recruiting functions at corporations. Companies will be able to expand their search to areas outside of their physical footprints and increase access to more cost-effective talent.
2. Demand For Solo And Socially Distant Space Increases
Even before work-from-home mandates were widespread, workplace sensors identified employee social distancing occurring throughout offices as workers followed news on the Coronavirus. Using a metric called “interaction frequency,” analysts identified that multi-person occupancies of shared spaces were decreasing in early March. As employees return, they’ll likely continue to look for more solo-oriented workspaces such as small conference rooms and phone booths within open office designs.
Employees have already shown increased demand for solo space within open offices over the last few years as they sought a quiet spot to make a call or put their heads down to work. Facility design has been trailing how office space is being used for some time in this regard. For instance, data shows that large conference rooms and personal offices continue to be poorly utilized in most offices. The average, mid-to-large conference room was only used 11% of the time last year. Furthermore, 30% of all conference room bookings ended up in no-shows. Now, with added health threats, facility managers will need to finally address having an overabundance of conference room space designed for large groups of people versus smaller conference rooms.
Employers will also begin to take a more active role in ensuring that employees are adequately distanced as they work in solo-oriented workspaces. Corporate leaders will look to lower peak utilization rates of office spaces, while also decreasing the density of workstations. Workplace sensors, and new metrics such as interaction frequency, will assist in establishing new distancing benchmarks and ensuring employees adhere to guidelines. This approach will be the only route to ensure distancing recommended by the CDC.
3. Proptech, Utilization Metrics, And Real-Time Office Data Become Paramount
To run more productive and healthier workspaces upon returning to the office, executives will need to rely on many types of new occupancy metrics and real-time office data. And not just those that assist with social distancing. The occupancy analytics market within the commercial real estate sector has been skyrocketing in recent years, and new research indicates that the market will grow to $5.7B by 2024.
As we slowly get back to the new normal but stay vigilant for a second wave of the virus, we’ll see heavier reliance on these solutions to maximize the utilization of spaces for both productivity and health. Companies will need to optimize real estate value while improving the overall usage of office space.
As set desks and personal offices continue to become a thing of the past, and a rotating cast of workers utilize adequately distanced hot desks, we’ll need new types of proptech to analyze and make recommendations based on the occupancy data that is captured. Increasingly the information layer of tomorrow’s data-driven office is leading to facility executives awash with data. Instead, executives should be looking towards the use of smart technology and artificial intelligence to make computational recommendations for them versus data utilization technology that mindlessly relays the data.
Facility managers will be reliant on proptech sensors for managing real-time data on the crowds within buildings and alerts that signify if too many people are in one place at one time. Furthermore, this technology and utilization data will be how we manage the transition back to work. As employers execute staggered returns where only a certain percentage of the workforce is allowed back to the office each month, demand will increase for real-time data that examines how building behavior is changing because of that.
4. Cleanliness Is Automated
Proptech will also be needed to ensure “building health” when it comes to cleanliness. The need extends across facilities, workspaces, as well as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.
Sensors can also be useful here to identify areas that need more frequent cleaning. Next-generation sensors can even detect if a workstation is used and then automate dispatching cleaning crews before another employee arrives. Overall, better cleaning protocols will need to be established as well, and hand sanitizers will need to be widely available within buildings.
Other new technologies will also need to be integrated into the workspace. Keyless entry has often been a nice-to-have in the past within the office. However, in the new workplace, that will be table-stakes. Touchless door entry could soon become a need-to-have. The touchscreen often seen outside conference rooms at major corporations may also become a thing of the past. Building managers are already researching the best way to implement mobile booking that keeps touching to personal devices.
Self-cleaning surfaces might even make a major foray into more hygienic office environments. Antimicrobial technology can be used in products with additives that permanently protect against microbes. These types of surfaces have started to become more prevalent in hospitals over the last few years, and we could be looking at their entry into the workplace — as adhesive covers to hot desks or even on vinyl floors with an antimicrobial used on the finishing process.
Only when employees feel like their work area is clean, and their facility managers have their health top of mind, will they be comfortable in stepping back to doing their job in a new office space.
Dan Ryan currently serves as co-founder and CEO of VergeSense, a provider of an AI Powered sensor-as-a-service platform for commercial real estate. He is a seasoned entrepreneur with a passion for disrupting the intersection of the physical and digital worlds. Previously, Dan was Vice President of Product at Acuity Brands Lighting, where he built and helped launch Acuity’s IoT Division (Atrius) following its acquisition of his company ByteLight. He originally founded ByteLight, a pioneer of LED-based indoor positioning systems, in 2011 and it’s now a standard offering across almost every lighting OEM. As one of the inventors of visible light communication, he has a total of 19 patents to his name. Dan is a graduate of Boston University, where he received a BS, summa cum laude, in Electrical Engineering.