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The Challenges of Returning to Work

Nicola Gillen • 21/04/2020

Across the world workers, tenants, landlords and co-working providers are asking when and how we will return to work. They are also asking how this remote working experiment could more fundamentally change the way we work and occupy office buildings. 

To address these questions Cushman & Wakefield has assembled a team of experts across our Total Workplace ecosystem with input from FM, HR, technology and sustainability to create a Return to Work overview. This is a strategic document from which to frame organisation or portfolio specific plans. Its purpose is to be a living document, that evolves as we learn more about the medical and legislative issues and, as we prototype and test with clients. 

Return to work is considered across 3-time horizons:

Short-term 

This is the emergency response, including preparation and readiness for day 1 return. It segues into our new normal, including social distancing and continued remote working. Until a vaccine is found, a second wave of infection is possible within this timescale. 

Medium-term 

This is the next 1-2 years, including projects already in the pipeline through 2021 and 2022. This phase allows organisations to test and validate interventions made during the initial return to work period. 

Long-term 

This time frame is post vaccine, looking at the next 3 to 5 years and beyond. A new business as usual responding to fundamental shifts in how and where we work.

Considerations are across 5 key areas: 

  1. Integrated Facilities Management (IFM)
    Including facilities management, operations, security, sanitization, hygiene, real time continuous service provision.

  2. People and Future Work Patterns
    Employee experience, wellbeing, communication, staff engagement, future work patterns and behaviour change management.

  3. Work Space
    Workplace strategy, space planning, interior design and furniture.

  4. Buildings
    The architecture and building services including sustainability and smart building technology.

  5. Portfolio
    This pandemic is likely to change how and where we work, it is unlikely that everyone will go back to working the way we did before. These changes will impact overall real estate portfolios, where significant questions are being raised about how much and what kind of office space is really needed.

modern office with lamps and Vitra style chairs

Short-term considerations are captured in the Cushman & Wakefield Recovery Readiness Task Force (RRTF) Back to Work Readiness Manuals alongside work from other cross company expert task forces. Topics include:

Who comes back and when?

A phased return is likely, in order to reduce volumes travelling and test response plans. Phasing could be done by sector e.g. manufacturing and construction first, as we are seeing in Spain. A split work pattern in the office could be considered, e.g. Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Tuesday/Thursday. In China and Singapore solutions are emerging using QR codes on mobile phones and colour coded wrist bands according to whether people are immune or symptomatic. 

Pre-arrival and commute experience

Commute patterns will vary enormously by city and region. Unnecessary travel is likely to be discouraged. Those travelling via public transport versus car will have higher levels of potential exposure. Organisations need to review their remote working policies to understand who really needs to come into the office and who can continue to work remotely. 

Entering the building

In addition to phasing of populations, occupiers may consider staggered arrival times. This would reduce pressure on public transport and avoid peaks for building entry. In the immediate-term we could see airport style temperature gauges at stations and receptions. 

Working on floor

Should social distancing continue and transition to the workplace short-term, we may need to look at demarcation of circulation routes, lifts, stairs, desking and meeting areas. The sixfeetoffice.com is a living lab created in our Amsterdam office showing what social distancing could mean in reality.

Preparing people

Communication and change management will be key to a successful return to work. Staff will need to understand new protocols and safety issues. Service providers will need to be trained to manage the protocols on site. 

Facilities Management

FM will be on the front line with increased cleaning, new protocols for reception and increased waste due to PPE and cleaning. Air quality and building servicing will be a focal point for health and wellbeing. Food provision may need to be reconsidered with potentially fewer open deli counter solutions and more wrapped food. FM will directly impact employee experience.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Not all interventions will require capital expenditure, some changes could be implemented through policy or training. Depending on the starting point, especially in terms of IT infrastructure and building condition, any changes made could require significant investment. A cost benefit analysis is recommended for any proposed change particularly highlighting whether the improvement responsibility sits with the landlord or the tenant.

Considerations for landlord, tenant and co-working providers

Whilst many of the principles above apply to landlords, tenants and coworking space providers alike, there are some areas which are specific to each. The landlord will be primarily concerned with arrival and common areas. They will also be responsible for building services and cleaning, both of which are key areas of focus for return to work. 

Technology 

The success of organisations right now is largely determined by how prepared they are for agile working through the provision of remote collaboration tools and cloud storage. Topics considered include; mobile technology, remote access, booking and monitoring systems and intelligent building information management systems.

Environmental considerations

If there are any positives to come out of the current pandemic situation is it likely to be the environment. We are already seeing media coverage of positive impact on air quality in cities and regions all over the world. Remote working on this scale is showing the impact society can have in arresting and potentially reversing the impact of climate change. It is critical to focus on both the short-term and long-term implications of returning to work. 

Key contributors: Despina Katsikakis, Nicola Gillen, Antonia Cardone, Rachel Casanova, Carol Wong, Steve Zatta, Bryan Berthold, Caroline Gardiner, Emma Swinnerton, Stefanie Woodward, Andrew Baker, Joe White and Karon Woodcock

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