The Ongoing Value of the Traditional Office

By Marla Maloney

COVID-19 has had a monumental impact on the way we function, work and live. According to statistics from tech giant Salesforce, more than 60 percent of the total workforce throughout the United States, Brazil, Australia and several European countries are working remotely in response to the pandemic.

The good news is that, according to Cushman & Wakefield data, employees working from home remain productive, with high focus and collaboration. However, as stated in our recent "The Future of Workplace" research report, employees also feel like they are losing meaningful personal connections and a sense of organizational culture, since certain learning and mentoring opportunities are not easily replicated in a virtual environment. Additionally, younger generations report greater challenges in working from home as compared to their baby boomer counterparts: sub-par connectivity, inadequate workspaces and strain from juggling caregiver duties, among other issues.

The research demonstrates that the traditional office is here to stay and still holds value for organizations, but with a renewed purpose in what our firm terms a new, Total Workplace Ecosystem, wherein:

  • The workplace will no longer be a single location, but an ecosystem of different locations and experiences to support convenience, functionality and well-being;
  • Balancing the impact of social distancing on density with fewer office-based workers likely will not affect current footprint sizes, with the office thriving in new ways; and
  • The office has a renewed purpose to provide inspiring destinations that strengthen cultural connection, learning and bonding with customers and colleagues, while fostering creativity and innovation.

With offices here to stay, property managers and landlords should be thinking about how best to prepare their tenants for this new normal by providing a combination of carefully designed processes and innovative digital strategies.

The challenge is to deliver a meaningful tenant experience in this time of uncertainty. It is up to property managers and landlords to provide assurance that tenants’ health and safety are top of mind and communicate what they are doing to get it right, thus ensuring tenant loyalty, trust and satisfaction.

SAFETY FIRST

Property managers and landlords must establish customized plans to promote safe business environments and property operations for all occupiers, visitors and staff. Consider some of the often-mentioned safety measures: adequate social-distancing signage, one-way directionals, hand sanitizer, space dividers and more regularly scheduled deep cleaning. Cushman & Wakefield recently released "Recovery Readiness: Guidelines, Considerations & Resources for Landlords & Property Managers," a series of guides that provides a solid foundation from which property professionals can minimize the impact to tenants when preparing properties for reopening and beyond.

Property managers and landlords will need to consult closely with their tenants as they continue to come back to the office to set expectations and establish security and cleaning protocols. With people coming in and out of the building with more irregularity, managers must ensure there is adequate security coverage for rotating work patterns. Additionally, they must encourage tenants to establish social-distancing guidelines and ways in which to properly clean desks and work areas on a regular basis—especially in spaces where people share tasks. Collaboration with building tenants to manage issues, such as lobby and elevator spacing, fire evacuation procedures and limitations to physical touch points, is crucial. The smooth flow of people in and out of buildings will be key.

Measures to improve the safety and sanitation of buildings will be critical as the awareness of personal risk and exposure now has reached unprecedented levels. Clear communication and visibility of risk mitigation efforts and health and cleaning protocols are important to address the psychological hurdle employees will face returning to work.

As for space usage, property managers and landlords can consult with current and prospective tenants about separating desk space and limiting the population of each office to ensure social distancing can be maintained. The use of screens and partitioning to create physical barriers could be a solution in some circumstances, although, in others, it may simply create more surfaces to be cleaned.

Using occupancy sensors to better understand how people are utilizing certain spaces can help inform tenants of higher risk areas that should be flagged and monitored more closely. Going forward, companies may start looking for more flexible space to mitigate risk and allow them to be more agile.

TECH & THE PEOPLE FACTOR

One of the top goals of a building owner or manager is to create a strong sense of community and continue regular engagement with tenants—even when they are off-site and dispersed. In the absence of a typical amenity mix due to COVID-19, property professionals can help keep tenants healthy and fit with virtual resources and tools that go beyond on-site gyms or activities. These include telemedicine, online fitness classes and even ideas for family-friendly activities. At the same time, they should connect tenants to resources on how to decrease stress and promote mental health. Such best practice goals can ensure your tenants feel connected.

Of course, technology can be of major assistance in this process. Most of the applications available today have existed for some time, but now are being accelerated to meet current needs. Capital is flowing into proptech firms that are developing such solutions as tenant-engagement apps, but the true effectiveness of a property manager is how they use this technology and others already in place. The combination of process, people and tech will enhance the tenant experience.

For years, property managers and landlords have been investing in tenant-experience software to help better connect with tenants, streamline building operations and create community. During this pandemic, tenant-engagement apps have become a helpful resource for those depending on timely information. They can communicate air quality, cleaning schedules, space utilization and what the building is doing from a safety perspective. And, utilizing visitor management systems enables tenants to control who is accessing which floor and allows visitors to register before their arrivals.

Space reservation and hoteling systems also are being deployed so that employees can reserve a spot for a full day or even days at a time to prevent coworker overlap, especially in jurisdictions with maximum occupancy recommendations. Finally, timely and informative digital signage and content located on tenant apps and throughout the building foster tenant communication and engagement.

Increased and accelerated use of technology, however, brings with it some data privacy risks. According to a recent Deloitte global survey, more than 60 percent of users now are working remotely and 1,000-plus unsecured personal devices connect to enterprise networks every day in 30 percent of U.S., U.K. and German companies. Considering these statistics, businesses should definitely reassess and reinforce their cybersecurity policies and measures.

A ROBUST ENVIRONMENT

Increasingly, more property professionals are incorporating additional health and safety measures into their buildings due to COVID-19. They are realizing that, not only can they help promote healthier and safer workplaces through digital tools and certifications like WELL or Fitwel, but they also can better control energy costs.

Cushman & Wakefield saw energy usage and associated costs drop by 25 to 40 percent as building occupancy was scaled back in response to COVID-19. But, with offices reopening and new ASHRAE-recommended heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) operating protocols, the result likely will be energy use above normal baselines with increased outside air to improve ventilation/dilution rates and longer operating/run times, plus enhanced air filtration.

Cost-efficient energy management systems that put health and safety front and center can further promote tenant confidence as buildings repopulate. From energy audits and real-time metering to air quality controls, energy management systems provide the tools for reducing energy costs and consumption, while delivering optimal environmental control as it relates directly to the well-being of building occupants.

Connectivity and bandwidth also contribute to a more robust environment. In this work-from-home world, connectivity is everything. Building owners should always be looking at ways to optimize their networks, ensuring their buildings and occupants are as productive as they can be.

The next generation of wireless technology—5G—could not have come at a better time as it was designed to usher in the "connected everything" era. As people continue to work from home and organizations steadily bring back partial populations of employees, connectivity will remain paramount with the continued use of virtual platforms and video conferencing.

If handled correctly, a crisis like this pandemic will not necessarily change the relationship between property professionals and tenants. If anything, it should enhance that partnership by building more reliance and trust. Having the proper people, processes and technology in place and prioritizing your tenants’ well-being first will set you up for success—even in difficult times.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Marla Maloney is Cushman & Wakefield’s president of Asset Services for the Americas.

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