It’s been more than a year since the pandemic turned many offices into virtual ghost towns, sparsely populated or even entirely empty—their former occupants relegated to working from home. With the vaccine rollout in full swing, many are now gearing up to bring people back into the office. It’s a time of hope but also of concern, as businesses balance the desire for a return to some semblance of normalcy with the need to ensure a safe working environment.
Further complicating the picture is the sense that office usage may be forever changed. Companies are rethinking everything from who will be in workplaces and how often to the amount of space needed and how it should be configured. Chief Executive spoke with Allison Ballard, vice president and executive director of 4SITE by CORT, about the challenges of creating workspaces that are safe, affordable and efficient and the role data can play.
Since the pandemic, we’ve been hearing a lot about the possibility of significant numbers of workers who were sent home to work remotely never returning to the office. What are you seeing with regard to the future of remote work?
In the aftermath of the pandemic, when organizations found that their people could be productive working from home, they started wondering why they were paying for all that real estate. But as it went on, the pendulum began to swing back. Employees began to really miss the serendipitous interactions of the workplace and the collaboration, knowledge-sharing and mentorship that happens there. And at the C-Suite level, there’s been recognition that productivity is decreasing, as remote work winds on and people struggle with the stress of working in isolation. There is also increasing concern about maintaining corporate culture and long-term retention of talent without direct personal contact.
Both employees and employers are anxious to understand how things will normalize over time. What’s the right mix of in-person and remote? What is the right amount of space I need for how my agile workforce wants to work? Unproductive space is a remarkable drag on the bottom line. Utilization data can provide the confidence required to justify changes to the office space and mitigate exposure to long-term real estate liabilities.
What about the issue of safety in the workspace? How much of a barrier are safety concerns in bringing people back to office spaces?
It’s essential that people feel that you’re protecting their well-being, taking steps to make the space safe. Things like reconfiguring workspaces to allow for social distancing and limiting risk through disinfection and sanitization can help them feel confident about coming back.
How can companies leverage technology to optimize their workspace usage and get a better understanding of how much space they will need in the future?
Understanding how employees interact with their workspace can play a critical role in making informed decisions about the right space for the future. Motion sensors placed throughout your office space can collect information about how offices, desks and conference rooms are being used, including time of day and length of time. You can use that data to make cost-saving, long-term decisions about real estate, as well as how office spaces should be configured.
For example, you might want to look at the percentage of time private offices are used to evaluate whether they’re the right use of space or if certain departments can consolidate their space requirements.
What can sensors do to help companies determine what safety measures to put in place?
Monitoring the places people use yields data that can be used to inform janitorial services to ensure that the necessary disinfection and sanitization takes place in every office and room used that day—and, conversely, that resources aren’t being wasted sanitizing areas that have not been used. They can help you meet regulatory requirements by monitoring movement to ensure that occupancy isn’t exceeding the maximum capacity allowed. Should someone who has been in the workplace test positive, sensors can also allow you to contact trace employees who were in the same area and may have been exposed.
Ultimately, they give you and your people peace of mind. Going that extra mile to get a more granular understanding of potential exposure and monitoring for social distancing protocols and sanitization needs tells them that they’re important enough to you that you’re doing everything you can to make the workplace as safe as possible and protect their well-being.