By Allison Ballard
Over the past year, millions of employees worldwide experienced working from home as the pandemic tore through countries and communities. However, as COVID-19 rates continue to decline, people will soon leave their couches or home workstations and return to the office. Many employees are planning to be back in the physical office at the end of this summer or early fall, and both employees and employers are rethinking how the modern office will work before they start their daily commute again.
A recent 4SITE survey, which included responses from 750 employers across 12 industries, found two major takeaways regarding the return to the office: employee health and safety, and office space efficiency.
Overall, 70% of respondents said health and safety are top of mind as concerns linger from the pandemic. Additionally, the last year also gave people time to consider how offices are used, with many from the survey seeing an opportunity to restructure workspaces in a way that’s more efficient, whether that’s changing from the use of cubicles or creating office layouts that better suit employees who are coming and going from the office with more flexibility.
Both of these issues—workplace safety and reimagining offices—can be addressed with the help of sensor technology that gathers data of how spaces are used and where employees spend time.
How Sensor Technology is Enabling Safer Office Environments
4SITE’s survey found that the areas causing the most significant concern for employees’ safety were meeting areas and other shared spaces that see heavy foot traffic.
Utilizing tools that are driven by data offers facilities management teams an additional resource that takes aim at these issues and can gather powerful insights that can change how we imagine workspaces. By collecting information on heavily trafficked parts of the office, managers can sanitize those areas more often to protect employees from germs to help prevent sickness. Sensors can then mark these popular areas as spots that need sanitization stations or other tools to help stop the spread of viruses.
Finally, non-invasive sensors can aid in contact tracing by knowing who may have also been in an area where an employee became sick without encroaching on employee’s privacy.
Space Utilization Data for Smarter Commercial Real-Estate Decisions
Office sensors provide benefits beyond just keeping a workforce healthy, as they also save businesses money and can streamline how offices work to increase productivity.
A simple return-to-work study can measure what’s called “dwell time” and is focused on areas prioritized in the office as well as unnecessary spaces or layouts—imagine a way to see how often workers gather around a water cooler but may avoid an added break room or an unused private office.
These occupancy studies need to be conducted once employees are back in the office; while they can take up to 12 months, the studies can benefit all involved. Facility managers can use the information to reconfigure and prioritize areas that may have a better use, like changing a neglected office into a meeting space. In addition, employees can have workspaces better organized to fit their needs.
The results could also lead to fundamental changes in office space and square footage if the study found wasted space or unnecessary areas. These changes can ultimately keep more workers in the space and working productively, while saving businesses money on rent or real estate.
A Hybrid Approach
Offices may look a bit emptier than they did prior to the pandemic. Around 97% of employees do not want to return to the office full-time and they expect flexibility in where they can work, while this same survey found 61% of employees want to stay fully remote. Whether or not that happens will be up to employers, but it’s something many will consider if they hope to recruit a talented and competitive workforce.
With more employees in and out of the office, many spaces may not be utilized, and some desks may be left empty. Data from sensor technology can help track these areas week over week and can enable businesses to make significant changes to their offices, including subleasing some of their space to other companies or growing their workforce without growing their office space.
Understanding the needs of these hybrid workers and the spaces used in an office layout is vital for office managers looking to create a productive and healthy environment.
The New Back to Work
Recreating what many consider to be “the office” will require some thought in 2021 and beyond. The pandemic has left lasting changes, and business leaders and facility managers need to meet the modernized standards demanded by the workforce. Employees will expect new protocols in health and safety while also requiring updated layouts and office designs to help meet maximum productivity. To navigate these new standards, effective tools like office sensors and occupancy studies can not only help the transition back into the office, but also make it safer for everyone involved.
Ballard is the Vice President and Executive Director for 4SITE by CORT, A Berkshire Hathaway Company. She has been working with commercial real estate executives and office occupiers to get the most out of the workplace for over 25 years. Ballard is a workplace advisory board member and a longstanding member of the International Facilities Management Association.