5 minute read 1 May 2020
Business couple working at desk

How COVID-19 is changing the office

By

Selina Short

EY Global Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Innovation Leader

Leader of EY Oceania Real Estate & Construction practice. An expert in intelligent buildings and smart cities. Champion of innovation and the strategic importance of cities.

5 minute read 1 May 2020

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The future of work, once an abstract concept, became a concrete reality overnight.

Faced with the COVID-19 crisis, millions of organizations had to pivot their workforce to work from home. For some it was an easy transition; they had been investing in a flexible working culture and enabling technology for many years. For others, the task was more daunting.

Either way, the global work-from-home experiment has begun.

Now, every business around the globe is thinking about how to ensure continuity and support their people and clients through this crisis. But in solving the challenges of now, we also need to consider next – how we ease out of it – and beyond to the “new normal” that will emerge.

The COVID-19 crisis goes against our natural cognitive biases. Our brains may tell us “this will all return to normal,” but this shock will change the way we think about work forever. Both landlords and tenants must consider the far-reaching consequences of this crisis and how it will shape their organizations in the long term.

Technology and our transition back to the office

After years of talking about healthy buildings, we now understand this concept means more than swanky end-of-trip facilities and lunchtime yoga.

We can safely assume a healthy building in the COVID-19 era is reliant on intense cleaning regimes, fresh air and natural light. But it will also be dependent on a host of technologies that, for the most part, we’ve resisted until now. 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 safety and job security. 

Leaders understand that COVID-19 will be fought not just by epidemiologists, but by IoT specialists, computer scientists and big data analysts.

Leaders understand that COVID-19 will be fought not just by epidemiologists, but by IoT specialists, computer scientists and big data analysts. Examples of actions that some organizations can deploy (and are already deploying) include:

  • Biometric hardware
    Install airport-grade temperature scanners and digital thermometers to test employees as they enter the building
  • AI and analytics
    Apply social distancing rules within the office space with the help of AI and analytics to manage assigned seating, split shifts, staggered starts, weekly rotations and space restrictions
  • Smart security
    Lock down employee access to certain floors or days, and use sensors to supervise compliance
  • Building management systems
    Monitor fresh air and indoor humidity rates

Employees will undoubtedly be reluctant about returning to the office. Putting safety at the heart of your strategy, with the help of technology, will encourage them back into the building.

To return or not return to the office?

It is still too early to make any hard and fast predictions but looking beyond the next phase, our unexpected experiment is very likely to force a radical rethink of how people work.

Our clients are already telling us that they are rethinking densification and desk sharing, and are re-examining what the future of work is going to mean for their office strategy.

“Work from home has, for the most part, been a success,” one client told me recently. “We’ve experienced no decrease in productivity and interconnectivity. Will we need the same amount of space when we return?”

Companies shifting to remote working

25%

of companies plan to shift at least 20% of their on-site employees to remote working (Gartner).

Tech analyst Gartner has found nearly a quarter of companies plan to shift at least 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions as a direct result of COVID-19.

Skeptical business leaders have discovered their people can work productively from the kitchen table, that digital tools aren’t so difficult to use, and that live-stream events and online meetings can cut down unnecessary travel, time, costs and carbon miles.

We’ve known this for decades. One meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology back in 2007, found that people’s relationships with colleagues generally only suffered if they worked remotely three or more days each week. Another, published more recently in the Journal of Business Psychology, found those with highly complex jobs requiring concentration performed better when the distractions of the office were eliminated.

After years of ignoring the evidence, companies are now allowing people to experiment with what works for them, and what doesn’t. People are discovering they can write reports better from home but conduct performance reviews better in the office, for instance.

When people return to the office, armed with the evidence from this experiment, they won’t want to slide back into their old seat. Expect to see more employees want to work half their days at home. And the other half? They’ll want space for collaborative and creative work – and they will need to be with the right people to do that type of work. By using technology to link space use with other factors, such as skills, projects, teams or personal interests, we can create clusters of people with complementary profiles to foster collaboration, productivity and engagement.

What about space?

Not everyone is sold on working from home, and there’s clear evidence that social isolation can be a productivity killer. Analysis undertaken by Gallup – which examined more than 1.8 million employees in 73 countries – found a direct correlation between employee loneliness and company performance. But there is now enough momentum for companies to create permanent change.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that we’ll never need as much office stock again. But after years of snipping away at the employee-to-space ratio, we may find that something new emerges – a new “hybrid” work life model.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that we’ll never need as much office stock again. But we may find that something new emerges.

Consider the changes to office cultures and workspaces over the last few decades: from the corner offices and drinks trolleys of the 60s, to the sea of cubicles in the 80s and the bean bags and sleep pods of the 2000s. What will happen after weeks or months of working from home, followed by a socially distant re-entry to office life? What will beyond look like?

I think the world beyond COVID-19 can be one in which employees are happier, healthier and more productive.

Neuroscience tells us that human survival depends on deep social connections – which is why the current changes to our social structures are so hard for us all.

Technology has helped us keep our physical distance, and it can play a fundamental role in reconnecting us. But to achieve this, we must pull together all our workplace data to understand what is truly going on in our spaces. Data can help us identify patterns and anomalies, and unearth new opportunities to create connections.

The strongest relationships are forged in tough times. Landlords and tenants who work in close collaboration, sharing data, insights and costs, to create safe and healthy buildings are those that will get us through COVID-19 and defend us against invisible enemies in the future. Those relationships will also help create workplace communities that leave people feeling happier and healthier, less lonely and more connected than when they arrived.

Those that embrace the change are also positioned to lead it. The real estate sector has been talking about transformative placemaking for some time. Placemaking may have paused during the pandemic, but it’s already clear that connected places that rethink community will be best positioned for recovery, resilience and the new normal.

Summary

Real estate owners of office space need to make sure their buildings are safe for office workers to return to. Embedding technology solutions within buildings can enable a safer working environment using IoT, AI, data analytics and smart security. 

About this article

By

Selina Short

EY Global Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Innovation Leader

Leader of EY Oceania Real Estate & Construction practice. An expert in intelligent buildings and smart cities. Champion of innovation and the strategic importance of cities.