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Return to Work: Ten Things to Consider


As the world begins to emerge from its year-long involuntary isolation, corporations and their employees are facing unchartered territory when it comes to the workplace.

Never before have we been forced to press the universal reset button; expected simply to pick up where we left off and emerge like caterpillars from the constraints of our isolated cocoons, born-again into a brand-new workplace environment with no rulebook.

There are no precedents and no guidelines to follow in the aftermath of a globally devastating pandemic. Each company is on its own, including the owners and operators of Corporate Real Estate. The question of what to do with all those still-empty offices, operating critical factories, stadiums and even laboratories, looms large for companies fighting to first protect their employees and customers, while continuing to serve shareholder interests.

Trascent, a global consulting firm advising The Fortune 500 on corporate real estate and facilities management, have devised a list of 10 fundamental variables that corporations, large and small, should be considering when attracting new employees and welcoming back old staff, in light of unfamiliar, post-Covid CRE / FM realities.

They include:

Have a clear idea of who needs to be physically present in the office. Do you really need an in-office presence to order supplies or make cold calls? Over the course of a year, smart corporate employers learned that productivity is not a function of location, as many job functions are location independent. Identifying groups that can re-enter the workplace in phased stages is critical, based on the impact of location on the job function.

Determine what a safe environment looks like. Beyond adhering to OSHA guidelines, what other measures can be introduced to promote a safe environment to which employees will want to return without hesitation? Air purifiers? Masks? Partitions? Investment in enhanced safety measures will pay off in diminution of anxiety.

Begin to make the workplace “work ready.” In keeping with the primary goal of promoting a seamless transition back into the workplace, what needs, specific to your business, must you address? Dedicated spaces for phone conversations? Expanded access to Wi-Fi? White Boards and erasable markers? A primed, well-prepared workplace evokes the feeling of homecoming as an alternative to (another) upheaval in the normal routine of life.

Think about what is needed for an effective workplace in the absence of assigned offices and/or dedicated seating. Almost every authority on the subject agrees that the traditional model of dedicated offices and mazes of assigned cubicles has run its course and will be discarded in favor of a looser, more utilitarian work environment. For anyone over the age of 40, this will likely be the most disruptive change they will encounter, while for those younger than 30, this will be welcomed as an engaging, community oriented working environment. Strategies designed to allay anxieties, and promote acceptance, with this new schematic, coupled with advances in assistive-technologies will streamline in-office processes, but will require corporate investment and in-house promotion to accelerate acceptance and usage and promote well-being.

Leverage workplace technology to its fullest extent. Beyond providing a safe, productive environment, real estate leaders will also need to ensure that the environment promotes a positive workplace experience and builds the right culture and community. Today, none of that is possible without mobility compatible technology that not only creates worker engagement but also promotes well-being. Corporations will need to ensure that employees who WFH are technologically equipped to do so and have the training to use the technology effectively.

Develop direct lines of communication with all executives regardless of their physical location. In the face of imposed isolation, unprecedented numbers of people supplanted primary physical contact with digital communication substitutes. Platforms like Skype, Zoom and Sharepoint, designed to facilitate remote interaction, all reported extraordinary upturns in their user bases over the course of the past year. The lesson left behind, on a global scale, is unambiguous: physical location is not an insurmountable impediment to maintaining regular communication.

Plan to create on-demand workplace services. Let common sense win the day. In the absence of an onsite workforce, you no longer need a fully stocked cafeteria to feed employees that have opted for remote work settings. The same principle applies to workstations, conference rooms and lounging areas and parking garages. The focus is on adjusting workplace solutions for employees from an “on-site” suite of services, constantly on, to services and amenities for a mix of on-site and “at-home” workers. Location will help determine who may need some or more of these services “on-demand.”

Re-examine your balance sheet with an eye toward cutting out waste. Real Estate is one of the largest asset classes on the balance sheet. Devising a forward-looking real estate strategy will enable portfolio ‘rightsizing’ and developing strategies for existing real estate lease commitments. The pandemic has also provided real estate leaders with a fungible window of opportunity to drive decision making around the portfolio.

Be creative in developing ways to repurpose underutilized space. The key to repurposing space is to ensure that it still benefits your company in its new incarnation. For example, the addition of a coffee bar or a ping-pong table may seem like the perfect choice for repurposing empty space. It’s easy, inexpensive and a seemingly employee-centered fix that creates added value to your space in the form of an added perk. But realistically, how many of your employees are burgeoning Baristas and how often have you thought to yourself, in the middle of a busy workday “now, would be a great time to play some ping pong”?  Given just a little more thought to the real-life needs of your workforce you might ask yourself “What percentage of my working staff are parents that would benefit from converting that unused space into a day care or fitness room?”

Consider the wellbeing of your employees to be a top priority. Employee wellbeing is a vital element for companies that want to attract and maintain top talent. A new emboldened generation of millennials entering the workforce are acutely aware of their own values and interests and seek a company that offers the right environment and values to pursue a career. These workers need a workplace environment that is energizing, engaging, and connected to the broader corporate community. Wellbeing is a theme that cuts across multiple aspects (safety, health, morale) of the workplace in a manner to promote overall workplace productivity, safety, and engagement.  Employee wellbeing is of paramount interest to executives today and CRE leaders must ensure that any post-pandemic workplace policy and strategy does not disadvantage the interests of any employee sub-group – for example, a remote work from home policy that favors people in suburban homes, but not those living in urban areas, etc. The benefits of any post-pandemic workplace strategy must equally apply to all employees, regardless of income, education, or location.

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