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Workplace Health and Safety

Rethinking Your Office When Returning to Work

As employees slowly return to shared office spaces, space management, smart technologies that allow for contact tracing, and other office innovations will become critical in the wake of the pandemic. Michelle V. Reyman, AIA, LEED AP, associate and director of workplace strategy for FOX Architects, here talks about the key tenets of space management and what office managers should consider when returning to physical workspaces.

Michelle V. Reyman, AIA, LEED AP

Associate and Director of Workplace Strategy, FOX Architects

What is space management as it relates to returning to the office?

Space management is understanding how the space will need to be utilized and adapting the office space to meet those requirements. At times, that adaptation may need to be rapid, as is the case with fluctuating jurisdictional requirements due to COVID-19 cases. We understand managing density equates to managing spread. When building a plan to bring staff back to the office, the first question to start with is “why?” Why are we asking them to come back to the office? What isn’t working now that we need to make an adjustment? How “why” is defined will inform the solutions that lead to the “what” and “how” of a management plan.

What is the importance of developing a space management strategy before returning to the office after COVID-19?

Real estate is expensive. After the cost of individual employees (i.e., salary, insurance, benefits), real estate tends to be the next highest cost an organization pays. For organizations to maximize their return on investment, they should look at their space as a tool for the betterment of their mission, vision, and/or growth. A comprehensive workplace strategy aligns the physical space to the mission of the organization, policy, culture, and management practices that will allow the space to function as a tool for the organization, ultimately helping to drive the organization forward. 

Returning to the office after COVID-19 can be viewed in the same lens of a holistic strategy. Start with the “why.” Why do we need physical space? Does it promote our culture? Does it facilitate collaboration? Do staff physically need to be in the space to do their work? Are their technology constraints that don’t allow them to work successfully in a remote scenario? 

Include your staff in the discussion. Engagement is critical in the development and execution of any strategy. Your staff knows what is working and what is not working. They may be able to point out blind spots you didn’t know about. Some staff may have constraints that don’t allow them to come back, such as elder or childcare limits, fear of public transportation, health conditions that put them at higher risk of infection, and so forth. It’s important your staff members feel their concerns have been heard and that management is working to provide the safest environment that is feasible. Regardless of how physically safe you make the environment, if staff do not feel safe in the office, they will not be productive and engaged in the office.

Once you have an understanding of how many staff are able to return to the office in the near term and what needs those returning staff have for the office, you can start to assemble a plan for the “what” and “how” of your strategy. For example, if your staff is expressing a need to come back to the office for collaboration that isn’t working effectively in a virtual environment, you can then focus your resources on modifications to collaboration areas and potential technology upgrades to facilitate that need. If your staff is better able to do individually focused work at home, then perhaps spending on modifications to workstations (cubicles) isn’t the best use of resources. A thoughtful strategy will save valuable resources for those areas where it is truly needed.

What are some key near-term workspace adaptations facility managers need to make in order to reopen safely?

Once you have determined your reopening population size and requirements, the next step is to review your local jurisdictional regulations and health department requirements. Each state, county, and city will have varying restrictions that affect your occupant density, face coverings, entry procedures, and so forth. The CDC also has comprehensive reopening guidelines on their website to help organizations develop their own reopening plans. 

If you are in a shared office building, it is recommended you inquire as to what modifications and policies your landlord will be implementing in the building. Typically these include protocols for entry into the building, such as temperature screenings, questionnaire/affidavits, face covering requirements; occupancy limits for elevators, restrooms, and common amenity areas; adjustments to the building’s air handling system, such as increased filtration media, purging of the system, and increased fresh air; and increased and/or additional cleaning practices and traffic flow requirements to reduce density in high-traffic areas. Examples of this include one-way circulation paths and dedicated up/down stairs, among others. 

Your reentry plan should build upon what is being instituted in the building. If your organization is also the building owner, you’ll want to incorporate those considerations in your plan as well. It’s recommended to engage with a professional engineer and/or architect to help evaluate what adjustments to the building infrastructure are warranted and feasible. 

How will having space management systems in place help business owners beyond COVID-19?

According to JLL’s Occupancy Benchmarking Guide 2019-2020, the typical office space is only utilized at an average of 60 percent of its capacity. This means there is significant under-utilization of space for the average organization. Empty space is effectively wasted money. In most cases, the space isn’t designed to meet the demands of the staff, either because of size, configuration, acoustic concerns, the wrong technology, or any number of other issues that make the space less desirable. 

Having a space management strategy in place, with tracking metrics, allows the facilities manager to evaluate how effective specific spaces are and adapt them as required to increase their utilization. Technology is available that will allow the facilities manager to track, through the use of sensors, reservation systems, and feedback applications, exactly what spaces are being used, how often they are being used and by how many people, and what support technology is most in demand. Facility managers are then able to make informed decisions about how to modify or upgrade areas within the office to increase their utilization. 

How has technology become the key to ensuring safe workplace environments that are compliant with regulations?

In the past few years, there have been significant advancements in software applications relating to the management of office space. Borrowing from the programming used in parking space reservation applications and coworking enterprises, technology companies have been developing similar space reservation systems that are accessible via a smartphone and allow the employee to seamlessly schedule a conference room, and reserve audio visual equipment or an assigned desk. 

Applications like GoSpaces provide a customized interface for an organization that allows employees to access everything from a digital space reservation system, feedback on workspace, company-wide wellness challenges, and more. The interface is user-friendly and takes queues from the video game sector. For example, employees can “walk” a 3D model of their office to find the desk they want to reserve. In the application, facilities managers can designate which desks are available for use and which are blocked off to allow for physical distancing, maintaining compliance with local regulations. 

Other applications have been developed that facilitate contract tracing in the office environment, such as PwC’s ACT application. Facilities managers can be given data on which spaces the infected person was in and who else in the organization used those same spaces, allowing for more strategic cleaning protocols and isolation of space. Additional features that can be found in similar applications include threat/emergency notifications to alert employees about an active threat, a feature that was growing in popularity in response to active-shooter scenarios in the workplace prior to COVID-19.

The expansion of IoT technology has brought enhanced touchless automation to the office building. Sensors that interface with users’ smartphones can do everything from unlock secure doors, request destination dispatch elevators, and unlock audio visual equipment. Sensors tied to the building’s mechanical system can alert engineering staff to air quality issues and allow for adjustment of the air distribution system. Office furniture company Herman Miller has recently released a series of “smart” office furniture called Live, which interfaces with a proprietary platform and uses IoT sensors to set adjustable desk heights for individual users.

Information tracking can be overwhelming, so applications and sensor technology will facilitate a centralized repository of information that is useful in the management of the office. As facilities managers evaluate which technology to implement in the space, they will need to work closely with IT and HR departments to ensure integration with current office technology and compliance with HR, policy, and privacy concerns.

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