By Simon Blenkiron
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are facing entirely new utilization and wellness challenges. When bringing employees back to the workplace, there is no one-size-fits-all plan. Each organization will face unique circumstances. Some will have too much space; some may stagger the return to the office; and others may ask that most of their employees continue to work remotely. At the same time, the risk of regional flare-ups of COVID-19 that could result in “local lockdowns” also impacts scenario planning.
For this reason, data and technology play a significant role in the return to the workplace, not just in keeping employees engaged and safe by maintaining social distancing and creating a productive environment, but also in maintaining buildings, maximizing space, and analyzing costs.
Organizations, and specifically CRE and facility management professionals, need to understand the variables and restrictions for each of their sites around the world so they can review workplace scenarios at micro- and macro-levels. With this understanding, organizations can determine the number of people they can safely fit into each floor or building using a variety of physical distancing measurements.
Quickly identifying optimized plans can be challenging. Testing different scenarios will be an ongoing process in an effort to welcome employees back in phases and respond to a rise in cases, changing company policies, or new government regulations. Organizations that rely on manual processes to compare multiple office floor plan scenarios or seating charts will find the process time-consuming, costly and, sometimes, inaccurate.
For years, workplace management technology has helped organizations streamline processes and maximize workspace utilization. In the COVID-threatened workplace, that same technology is now being used to safely return employees to the workplace.
Integrated workplace management systems (IWMS) make it easier for CRE and facility management professionals to gain a clear understanding of the optimum workspace capacity for each setting. Integrated space planning tools enable users to model different scenarios — from setting safe physical distancing limits between desks to splitting common functions between different floors and/or buildings to reduce risk.
Even more importantly, before the pandemic, some organizations were turning their facilities into “smart buildings”, using different types of sensors to provide accurate, real-time data for improved automation and control.
Today, sensors can be used to support a phased return to work for employees. When combined with an IMWS solution, organizations can leverage sensors to collect and report on key data for monitoring and planning workspace occupancy, usage, and cleaning.
At global design, architecture, and engineering firm HOK, planning the return to work brings new opportunities. “As we return from remote work, we acknowledge that there are big and small adjustments we can make to improve sanitation and safety in the workplace,” said William Mitchell OAA, LEED AP, Architect and Principal at HOK. “A silver lining of our forced COVID-19 isolation is that it has given us a lot of time to think more holistically about our built environments and use this time to make them better.”
The firm is being proactive in creating healthier environments with reduced opportunities to transmit germs and viruses. For example, considering ways to dilute airborne contaminants and lower transmission opportunities, as well as maintain optimal humidity because viruses survive better in low humidity environments. By adjusting HVAC systems, the firm can obtain an optimal range of 40% to 60% humidity. As we return to the workplace, “we must be proactive and create healthier environments with reduced opportunities to transmit germs and viruses,” said Mitchell.
HOK is also using Trimble’s IWMS software to plan and manage its post-pandemic workplace. With this IWMS technology in place, HOK can analyze data to plan and deploy a successful back to the office strategy and optimize safety in a pre-vaccine workplace.
A Safe Return To The Workplace
Across the world, the main challenge faced by organizations is maintaining social distancing in workplaces built for higher utilization. However, with accurate building data on hand, workplace management technology such as IWMS can help create space plans based on new configurations that follow requirements for physical distancing. For example, organizations can create teams of employees, each with its own designated bank of desks for use on certain days of the week. Algorithms automatically apply physical distancing policies to the floor plans relative to the number of employees that need to occupy the space. This allows decision makers to compare different scenarios and as regulations or circumstances change, easily make adjustments or test entirely new scenarios.
Adding sensor technology to the mix can help organizations understand, in real-time, which areas have been occupied and need to remain unoccupied until they are cleaned and sanitized. And, sensors can track evolving usage and utilization, monitor policy versus culture, and highlight hotspots.
However, the biggest challenge for many organizations is capturing data when they lack the systems to do so. Organizations without sensors can bring data into an IWMS from other sources such as badge swipes and IP addresses. For example, if a worker tests positive for COVID-19, badge data can help investigate the movement of an infected individual and identify others they may have come into contact with so that notification can begin to prevent further spread.
Using Data To Make Real Estate Decisions
Organizations are also tapping into data to make informed decisions about their real estate portfolios. As the second largest expense on the balance sheet, there’s no doubt that real estate will come under increased scrutiny as organizations emerge from the initial phase of COVID-19.
For many, their space needs will never be the same again. At the same time, the rise in remote work and potential decrease in revenue will force some organizations to re-evaluate their entire real estate portfolio as they look for opportunities to lower costs and maximize critical assets. Easy access to a combination of utilization and financial data, and the ability to analyze that data is the best way to make informed decisions. Managing lease obligations on both a micro and macro level and understanding the impact decisions will have on the overall portfolio is best done with real-time data.
James Gorman, Morgan Stanley Chairman and CEO, believes that company will more than likely come out of this crisis with a smaller real estate footprint due to its successful remote work program, which involved 90% of the financial institution’s 80,000 employees. For organizations in this same situation, making both short- and long-term strategic decisions to downsize the portfolio is best done with accurate data and the ability to explore various options to mitigate unnecessary cost while providing a safe and healthy work environment.
With IWMS software, organizations can assess outcomes from alternative leasing and occupancy scenarios — and the likely change to variable costs from further lockdowns or reduced occupancy periods. Decision makers can also use this data within an IWMS to identify areas of wasteful consumption, such as HVAC or lighting, and the financial impact of potentially reducing this consumption and thus, lowering costs.
The New Normal
Leaders in organizations around the world are being forced to make strategic decisions faster than ever. Real-time data will not only ensure that employees are safe and productive, but will also help forecast further changes to workplace requirements as COVID-19 restrictions are gradually eased. Beyond this, data and technology that consolidates information for a single source of truth can help organizations plan for the future with confidence and contract in times of need or expand in times of growth. Regardless of your role in planning for workplace change in a post-pandemic world, data can give you the confidence in the decisions you make, from distancing to cleaning and beyond.
Blenkiron is Global Partner Director of Technology at Trimble Real Estate, a global specialist that helps customers transform the way they plan, manage, and optimize their real estate portfolios, buildings, and workplaces through cloud-based CAFM & IWMS software.
Want more news about COVID-19 and its impact on facilities?
Click here to read more news related to the coronavirus pandemic and facility management.