COVID-19: Lessons learned from office reopenings

back-to-the-workplaceIn our latest COVID-19 panel discussion, Lessons Learned from Office Re-openings, global workplace leaders from Berkeley Research Group and Equinix shared what they’ve learned (so far) from reopening offices and returning employees.

To help you with your return to work planning, here’s a recap of the tactical strategies and insights our panelists shared.

Take the quiz: What's the best strategy for you to re-open your office during COVID-19?

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Our panelists

Dawn Romesmo, VP of Administrative Operations, joined us from Berkeley Research Group (BRG). BRG has 1300 employees in over 40 locations globally, with offices ranging in size from two people to 220 people.

Tom Newton, Global Head of Corporate Real Estate, and Karissa Swanigan, Corporate Real Estate Senior Coordinator, joined us from Equinix. Equinix is the world’s biggest data centre company with 230 locations globally. About 30 of their facilities are “standalone office environments” which are the team’s primary focus for now.

“When we first looked at (bringing employees back), we thought it was going to be about how much of the office needed to be back for the office to function. But we've proven that everyone can work from home so it's not about that. It’s about need. And it's a human need.“

— Tom Newton, Global Head of Corporate Real Estate

Employee welfare is the primary driver to return people to the office

All panelists have found that the needs—and the wellbeing—of their employees are the primary drivers of when, how, and how many people should return to each location.

“Mental health and physical health, the screaming baby upstairs, the construction site next door… Most of what we've seen so far is that challenges at home, distractions, or other types of things like that are the main reasons people want to return to the office.”

“One pattern we’re seeing where there's an appetite to return to the office is in metropolitan areas where people’s home environments tend to be really small.”

In order of priority, here’s what’s driving and shaping our panelists’ strategies on returning people to the office:

  • Challenges with working from home home (distractions, not enough space to work effectively from home, etc)
  • Client pressures that require an employee to return to the office
  • Projects that require people to work together in person
  • And, quite simply: some people just like to be in the office

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Overcommunication is essential, even when you don’t have new information to share

Extensive communication with employees has been a key part of Equinix’s strategy since the pandemic broke out.

“Massive communication was a stated aim right from the word go. Ongoing communication, presentations from leadership, emails from staff. It's amazing how many times you can restate the same stuff and still you see the stress levels go down.”

Dealing with facilities in different jurisdictions? Let each local office decide when to reopen.

BRG has a “fairly distributed decision-making process” and the team at HQ tends to act more like a managing partner for each location, so the decision to let each local office decide when and how to return was natural.

“Because we have locations in such different geographic areas, we’re letting the local assess the jurisdictional requirements of county, city, state, and decide if they have a need to come back.

“Our starting point was to form a committee that was the HR, legal, operations, real estate, and IT folks coming together to set up a framework.

Working together, the committee decided to:

  • Create a list of policies and practices that we were going to mandate at the firm level
  • Develop a list of self-monitoring steps and temperature checks for employees to perform at home
  • Require individual employees acknowledge a list of policies before returning to the office (in the form of a questionnaire that people would complete before returning)
  • Require every employee to adhere to CDC guidelines like handwashing and social distancing in the workplace

From there, each local office has taken the approach of whatever their jurisdiction is driving towards.

“Some have set occupancy percentages based on the stage (of reopening) they're at. Other offices like Chicago and New York are going to require mandatory training for all employees before they can come back.”

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Desk booking reservations can help with contact tracing

By requiring employees to reserve a desk before they come in, Equinix is using desk booking as a recordkeeping tool to see exactly who’s been in the office each day.

“Having employees to make the reservation, and then having office staff follow up to make sure that those folks have actually come in, we can see who’s been in the office each day and use that data to space people out if we need to.”

Adjusting floor plans will be an ongoing process, so make it easy for yourself

The team at Equinix shared a detailed strategy for manually adjusting floor plans, while BRG said their approach to planning seating configurations was “a little bit more fly by the seat” because needs varied greatly for each location.

Despite the differences in each company’s strategy, panelists agreed that the following steps were integral to the planning phase:

  • Determine maximum capacity for each floor
  • Identify all of the uses for each floor
  • Think about how people will be arriving and exiting each space
  • Add directional signage on the floor plan (and back it up with physical signage in your facility)
  • Highlight any “no go” zones on your floor plan like showers, communal areas, break rooms, conference rooms—anywhere you don’t want employees to access
  • Add the maximum allowable capacity to every bookable meeting room
  • Highlight which desks are bookable; block out unusable desks

Remember that you’ll need to adjust and update your floor plans as COVID-19 guidelines evolve. So try and develop a system for planning and implementing seating and floor plan changes that’s easy to work with over the long term.

You can use a tool like Scenarios to keep a virtual working draft of your floor plans that you can adjust and deploy as you bring more people back to the office.

“We’re building a plane and flying it at the same time. That's sort of been our motto here.”

— Dawn Romesmo, VP of Administrative Operations, BRG

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Instead of manually prioritizing who comes back first, do this instead

If it’s too hard to prioritize which employees can return first, and which ones need to continue working from home, follow Equinix’s lead and offer desk availability on a first come first serve basis.

“We've basically gone to first come first serve basis with desk bookings. We started off trying to prioritize who comes back first based on job forms. But it doesn't really work, because you've got a huge balancing act and an optimization question, and you can't do that in real time.”

Expect that employees won’t follow every guideline and plan accordingly

Given that there’ll be plenty of policies and procedures to adapt to in the post-coronavirus workplace, it’s unlikely that every employee will adhere to every single guideline and policy at all times.

So, as you’re creating your return to work strategy, keep that in mind and plan accordingly.

Here’s what Equinix and BRG are doing to support returning employees.

1. Use detailed welcome kits to prepare returning employees

Equinix plans to use welcome kits to help returning employees familiarize themselves with the changes and new guidelines they’ll encounter in the workplace.

“We’re in the process of building toolkits for our staff that are PowerPoints, with guidelines for how the return office is going to look, along with instructions on using the tools we're putting into place.”

Each toolkit includes guides and a video tutorial on how to use all of the new tools and resources introduced to the workplace, information on how to comply with COVID-19 guidelines at the office.

So far, Equinix is distributing the toolkits to employees in Hong Kong via email. The information in these welcome kits will also be made available on the company’s intranet.

Panel discussion: Lessons learned from office re-openings

2. Require employees to review and acknowledge guidelines before entering the office

Employees at both BRG and Equinix are required to review and acknowledge workplace COVID-19 guidelines before they can re-enter the workplace.

This step is designed to remind employees how to stay safe and compliant with COVID-19 guidelines during their time at the workplace.

“We have a code of conduct and require employees to acknowledge that they’ve read the code before they can book a seat to come in.”

In addition, Equinix is finding that a lot of people say they want to come back into the office, but their reasoning breaks down when they realize it's going to be a different world.

Returning employees need to wear a face covering and sit a significant distance away from their peers. Face-to-face meetings are not possible. And the usual food and beverage services are unavailable.

“So when people start realizing the practicalities of this new “interim” office, they go, ‘You know what? Home’s not so bad.’"

workplace technology

Workplace sensors aren’t necessary, but they’re a huge help if you use them right

Equinix are using workplace sensors to gather accurate data to support their COVID-19 workplace strategy, and display real-time seating availability on their floor plans.

“If employees can see where everyone's sitting and where there are gaps on the floor plan, then people can go and find an empty desk immediately. If an employee wants to find a quiet patch, they can go use that as well.

From a facilities perspective, we can also see our headcount and desk utilization over time.”

Integrating your workplace sensor provider with OfficeSpace can help you view, access, and monitor the same data on your interactive floor plans.

Measuring your strategy is essential to improving it over time

So much is unknown about the long-lasting impact that COVID-19 will have on workplace management, and there are so many external variables that are out of our control.

Measuring and improving your strategy over time is the only way

Some of the tools you that can help you track, monitor, and evolve your strategies over time are:

  • Distancing Planner: use AI to quickly create and adjust distanced floor plans as you return more people to the office.
  • Shift Planner: bring employees back to the office in groups or shifts.
  • Desk Booking: allow employees to book desks safely and have full control over desk utilization in your facilities.
  • Workplace sensor integration: integrate your sensor provider with OfficeSpace
  • Badge Integration: can also show you who’s been in your office and how your space was used on any given day.

What has your team learned (so far) from reopening offices?

Connecting and sharing knowledge is one of the best ways workplace teams can help one another in a post-coronavirus world. Let us know what you’ve learned so far during the reopening phase by sharing your thoughts and comments below.

If you’d like to listen to the full recording of Lessons Learned from Reopening Offices and participate with other workplace leaders in future COVID-19 panel discussions, subscribe to the OfficeSpace blog.

Photos: OSS, iStock, Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels