A discussion about what we might expect to be different when we return to the workplace.
Workplace Specialist, Managing Director at Lamar Johnson Collaborative
& 2020 CREW Network Global Board of Directors
1. What has kept you up at night during the pandemic?
AE: I would have to say my clients and the important preparedness work they need us to help with is what has kept me up at night. I am on our COVID-19 preparedness team and there has been no shortage of articles, research, and webinars to keep up with as we all learn together on how the pandemic has impacted the workplace. As a workplace strategist, my job is to align people, business process, technology and space and in the 20+ years I have been doing this, I have yet to see workplace transformation move this quickly. No best practice manual exists yet – it has to be a collaboration of many minds to evaluate each workplace holistically as the workplace reactivation plan takes shape.
2. What might we expect to be different when we return to the office?
AE: I think the pandemic will prove to be a catalyst for a host of welcomed workplace improvements – all in the name of employee health, wellbeing, and safety. This may include providing shower/changing facilities for those that commute on mass transit into the office or you may select a workspace based on a kiosk that informs you about which spaces are sanitized and ready for use. Workplace occupancy will be phased for re-entry so that costly mass changes are not required to furniture in the immediate term. Mobile zones will be re-imagined with new protocols to desk-share vs. continue free address to allow easier contact tracing. Some companies may not desk share until post vaccine. Attention will be paid to standardizing on contactless fixtures and self-opening doors throughout the space and new HEPA filtration and improved air quality measures will be invested in. Stairwells will be refreshed and branded with witty encouraging phrases on stair treads (to keep you motivated at every step), and increased conditioned air will be provisioned —all in hopes that you do your part to reduce elevator demand. We will see the emergence of a cleaning concierge roving each floor sanitizing continuously to keep up the optics that sanitization is continuous.
3. Will outdoor spaces play a role in the workplace of the future?
AE: I think we will see renewed focus on outdoor courtyards, rooftop spaces, and balcony space to be retrofitted to accommodate more ergonomic work settings to encourage longer stays and serve as an additional choice to spread out when at work regardless of the season. Walking meetings will make a comeback as people crave being outside after being confined for this extended period. Outdoor wifi bandwidth will increase to maintain productivity levels.
4. How will companies bring the workforce back to the office?
AE: One thing is certain, employers will not risk bringing employees back without complete confidence that it is safe to do so. The timing and degree by which companies welcome employees back to the office varies greatly based on local and regional stay at home orders, CDC/WHO/OSHA guidelines, mass transit concerns, the urgency of the “need” for essential employees, and those not immunocompromised (or sharing a household with someone who is). With childcare centers and school and camp closures, employers will need to increase choice and flexibility in where, when and how work happens. During the “pre-vaccine” phase, companies will likely have a conservative gating strategy to slowly phase the re-entry of critical workers (up to 25% occupancy) and as more is understood about the virus and testing capacities increase, we will likely see increases (up to 50%). I am willing to bet it is likely a “post vaccine” era before we return to full occupancy.
5. What will employees need to do before re-entry?
AE: Companies may have employees participate in workplace safety training prior to their return to work to ensure new behaviors, facility use protocols, and health and safety guidelines are communicated. They may receive a “welcome back” kit at their home with all the necessary PPE, sanitation wipes, and instructions for how to use the new social distancing app and contact tracer tool. We are creatures of habit and we know that we cannot rely on human behavior alone to keep us safe. The workplace will have signage and visual cues to help remind us of our new (ab)normal.
6. What lasting effects will we see on the built environment?
AE: Perhaps the density pendulum swung too far over the past decade and the pandemic and social distancing has caused us to realize the need to relax the aggressive density targets of the past. We will see new KPIs and success metrics emerge around indoor air quality, wellness amenities, cleanliness best practices, and the incorporation of nature in our new safety centric workplace of the future. In the future, a “best place to work” award might go to the company with the most measures taken to improve and enhance employee safety, health, and wellbeing. We may see the use of escalators vs. elevators alone in low-rise office buildings to reduce demand on elevators that are difficult to comply with social distancing. In new buildings we will see “quartering” of buildings, the concept of each quadrant of the floor having an independent neighborhood with its own elevators, restrooms, workspace, and amenities as a means to contain transmission should there be the need.
7. What lessons has the pandemic (already) taught us?
AE: Thanks to daily coronavirus briefings, constant media coverage and of course all of the amazingly funny memes on social media, it seems we all know more than we care to about all things coronavirus. We learned that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was right by placing “feeling safe” at the base of the pyramid. Without it, our mind cannot focus on anything else. This explains our obsession with ensuring that every aspect of our return to work, from the time we leave our home to the time return, must be 100% safe before we can even begin to consider re-entry. Companies realize this and are taking extreme measures to ensure employee safety and wellbeing. For some, it has taken a pandemic to realize how important personal health and wellbeing is and now daily exercise replaces what would have been commute time. We have also learned that “zoom” is now a verb, that there is a difference between cleaning vs. sanitizing and we are now acutely aware of how far apart 6 feet really is.
8. Is there a silver lining we can look forward to?
AE: Yes! We know that since lockdowns began and commuting to work came to a halt, almost overnight we saw clearer skylines, purer waterways, and experienced less polluted air to breathe. This is the proof we needed to see the negative impact we have on our planet. I anticipate that environmental sustainability efforts will gain renewed interest because what is good for the planet is also often good for the occupants. We are making our way through the greatest WFH experiment of all time and should we need to relegate to our homes again for any reason in the future, I think we can safely say we can do this again but with a lot less stress and anxiety than we had this first time around. Zooming just isn’t the same human connection we are hard wired for; I look forward to experiencing a refreshed workplace where we can once again be among colleagues to collaborate more seamlessly.
For more information, please check out this Workplace Reactivation Guide.
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