6 minute read 4 May 2020
Tops of modern corporate buildings

How to build resilient workforces and workspaces

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

6 minute read 4 May 2020

For the first time in history, millions of people around the world have changed not just their physical location but their behaviour in order to work remotely during periods of isolation. The success of this endeavor has changed our idea of workplaces, and workforces, forever. 

Since COVID-19, working from home has become the norm for a huge portion of the workforce. Gone are the days of unconscious discrimination against workers asking for flexibility out of the office. Gone too are long commutes. But not permanently. Despite the global upheaval, some things remain true: that the most productive workplaces are the result of chemistry between people and place, and of having resilient staff, physical environments and organisational business models.   

“This concept of resilient working is one of the most pressing issues that we’re hearing coming back from particularly the C-suite, in terms of what is occupying their mind right now,” EY Global Real Estate Innovation Leader Selina Short said from her Sydney home.

“Clients are starting to think about everything from how to get people back to the office safely, and when they return, what life in an office will actually look like.”

Organisations with annual real estate footprint costs in the millions, or billions are necessarily reviewing their position as part of a broader suite of capital management measures. The possibility for reduced footprints is a natural response to seeing entire workforces move out of the office without any lasting detrimental impact to productivity.

One client said they weren’t expecting to need “anywhere near” as much space for their office teams and were running sums based on all their people working between one and three days from home each week, in perpetuity.  Others feel that something critical has been missing and are counting the days to get their teams back to the same location though with consideration as to how that space is used more effectively applying the lessons learned during the mass working from home experiment.

But the health implications of COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. It is no longer a simple equation of the more remote working there is, the less office space is required. The hangover from this pandemic is likely to be new expectations around what is considered appropriate social distancing in the workplace. And that has huge implications for office space and design. As another client said, “Our strategy was densification and desk sharing. Now we’re rethinking that.”

Just as surveillance and security stepped up after the September 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 will force us to trade off some privacy in exchange for [medical] safety and job security.
Selina Short
EY Oceania Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Managing Partner

It’s also likely commercial buildings will henceforth be equipped with health monitoring technology as the norm. “We can safely assume a healthy building in the COVID-19 era is reliant on intense cleaning regimes, fresh air and natural light,” Short says. “But it will also be dependent on a host of technologies that, for the most part, we’ve resisted until now." 

This may include staggered start times and rostering, something many businesses have never done before. It will bring tracking apps into the work context so organisations can quickly identify where their people are and who they are working with; and whether people should be provided with their own personal protective equipment in the workplace. 

Resilient workplaces, resilient workforces

All organisations, whether with a staff of three, or 30,000 are having to take a position on not just how to return to work, when it starts happening in the coming months, but what the overall equation looks like for building workforce resilience.

Resilience in this context goes to three things, Short says:

  • consideration of the impact on the shock on people, jobs, skills and the future workforce;
  • a stable workplace and what a hybrid of remote and in-person work will look like, particularly if the in-person work happens in a socially distant office space; and
  • productivity and how organisations are going to come back and work smarter, automate, drive cost savings in the business to get through this phase of the recovery and then embed new productivity gains into the future.

 “Technology has allowed us to navigate our way through this crisis. I cannot imagine what this would have been like, ten or even five years ago. We will see a rush to further automation and implementation of smart systems to complement what organisations want to achieve for their people, place and productivity.”

As EY Partner Marco Maldonado says one thing is certain about the impact of COVID-19. It has cemented the fact that we are social in nature. 

We are never going to work from home full time, it is too much of a strain on individuals, staff don’t enjoy it when it’s the only option.
Marco Maldonado
EY Oceania Partner

"But tenants will work their space a lot harder. Businesses have realised that with the right infrastructure you can work from home, but they will need spaces for people to congregate.”

It’s why Short says the different strands of resilience all need to be wrapped tightly in the context of what the company’s purpose or culture is, or what they want it to be, or how they intend to shift it through this crisis period.

Purpose and culture thus become a foundation for placemaking as we enter the next iteration of our work life and the concept of Space as a Service enters the lexicon. Why do you want people in the office, when do you want them to come together, how much do you facilitate that, do you want to be seen by your people as more than a job, and if so how is this reflected in your new ‘work’ spaces? 


  • How are you approaching bringing your people back in to the office?
  • What are the biopsychosocial risks?
  • How clearly are you communicating about directions and changes to your workforce?
  • What size of workforce do we need to balance productivity and profitability?
  • What have been the benefits and the negative impacts to your workforce during the crisis and how can you ensure you don’t revert to BAU if it’s not optimal?
  • Agree new cultural norms, ways of working and physical/virtual interactions amongst workers, customers, vendors and other stakeholders


  • Is working from home successful for your organisation at scale?
  • How has this event made you think differently about your space requirements?
  • How will you control shared space within the workplace?
  • Have you started a strategic review of your real estate portfolio?


  • Have you been able to measure the impacts to the activity of your workforce during the crisis?
  • Have you been able to gain any rental relief or short term restructuring around your real estate portfolio?
  • Have you reviewed available productivity tools?
  • Have you deployed technology enablers (chatbots, early warning systems) to support worker inquiries and monitor worker health?
  • Use combined tenant and landlord data to create intelligent spaces 

Betting on where the economy lands

The critical dimension impacting decision making for everyone, is trying to take a position on what is really playing out in the economic environment, how deep and how protracted it will be. Current estimates suggest a four to six per cent dip annualised this year, and if the lockdown extends, or is reintroduced to deal with a second wave of the virus, the impact could eventuate in a 14 per cent contraction. Modelling looking at how many business may not survive and also the number of jobs that will no longer exist all impact the amount of space we will need.

“Every organisation that we’re talking to is struggling with how to take a position on the likely economic impact,” EY Partner Adam Canwell says. He is seeing the locus of attention at executive levels shifting from the now, to what the next really looks like.

“There are too many people across organisations just assuming we are going to return to normal. The challenge for executives is how to change those assumptions, so their people realise what they return to will be different and require different ways of working,” Canwell says.

“We know virtual work is going to be normal going forward and we know we’re not doing it brilliantly yet, we’re all knackered, we’re doing too many meetings, we haven’t optimised remote working. The question is what does that look like, and how do we get a tired and stressed workforce ready for the next shift?”

How do we use technology to understand what is working and what is not? How do we understand which of our employees are struggling and which are thriving and support our teams to learn from each other?

The impact of the coronavirus at a global scale means that while our cognitive bias pushes us towards a comfortable assumption that things will return to normal, the shock it has caused to our economic system means we have to consciously override that bias. By accepting a very different future, acknowledging that we can't know exactly what it will look like, and planning for adaptability we can ensure organisations as well as their people are given the best shot at developing resilience for the future.   

The team


The COVID-19 crisis has shown that for many of us work can be undertaken effectively in more places and ways than it traditionally has been. What remains true is that the most productive workplaces are the result of chemistry between people and place, and of having resilient staff, physical environments and organisational business models.   

About this article

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization