Published: Jun 02 2021

Four Considerations for Supporting the "Great Return" to the Office

The “great return” to work is upon us, and businesses everywhere are recognizing that the process is not as easy as flipping a switch. Offices may have shut down seemingly overnight when the pandemic hit, but return to work requires a planned, careful and gradual process. Workforces will likely operate on a hybrid model for some time, and companies are figuring out how to best support their employees while meeting their business goals and missions.

But although this situation presents numerous challenges, it is also an unprecedented opportunity to reflect upon what the ideal workplace experience might look like. As businesses strive to create optimal environments – one where employees feel valued and safe, where communication flows freely, and where efficiency and performance flourish – they are reevaluating how to best transition to the next stage. To this end, four big areas of consideration for longer-term changes are paramount in ensuring long-term support for the new normal.

Collecting Data for the Future

One way to address how to best use your space is to rethink your approach regarding how and what data you’re collecting (while ensuring the collection is in line with your company’s guidelines, of course). This data can help you make sure that not only are your work areas clean and safe, but that you’re also optimizing the use of available workspaces.

Health and Safety Concerns

As a result of the pandemic, we’re all acutely aware of how important it is to have visibility into situations that could lead to potential health outbreaks in the workplace. If an employee or office visitor tests positive for a highly transmissible disease like COVID, your company can expect to be asked questions such as:

  • What spaces did that person occupy throughout the day?
  • Who else may have been in those same locations and when?
  • Who met with that person during the day?
  • What information can be shared for the purpose of contact tracing?

You can answer these and other questions with data collected through a space and resource scheduling solution. Systems like Accruent’s EMS space management platform not only allow users to reserve spaces, but they can provide data after the fact about who occupied which areas. For example, EMS can tell you when someone booked and subsequently used a hotel desk space, when someone authenticated into a walk-up conference room with a badge swipe, or when an office visitor from outside the building entered the premises. You can use that data to determine what steps must then be taken to comply with health and safety policies and regulations.

Optimizing Cleaning Processes

Workspace sanitization is another area that has seen heightened attention over the past year. Extensive cleaning is costly, so organizations want to limit it to the spaces that have been used. Space scheduling software that allows you to utilize workspace check-ins ensures you clean only what needs to be cleaned – say, spaces occupied in the previous 24 hours – thereby keeping sanitation costs low. In addition, you can build notification workflows so the cleaning staff knows when and where they should be operating, and track when those tasks are performed.

Underutilization of Space

Unused or underutilized space was a significant issue before the pandemic, but it took on even greater importance when organizations were rapidly required to comply with new local and regional regulations regarding occupancy limits. Organizations had to shift from endeavoring to make the most of their real estate investment by increasing utilization to decreasing workspace density to meet COVID-related occupancy restrictions laid out in government mandates and corporate policies. As organizations go through various reopening stages, they must balance both concerns.

Before this can happen, however, companies must have the data that allows them to answer key questions like:

  • How busy was your space in the past? If your office has been collecting accurate historical data, you have this data at your fingertips. You can report that information from prior to the pandemic and compare it to more recent data. This will give you some insight into:
  • How busy will your space get in the future? Gathering accurate utilization statistics from the past can help organizations predict their future needs.
  • How are users spread out in your space? If only 30% of your employees are in the office on a given day but they are all assembled in that welcoming corner space next to the kitchen, you’re likely not going to meet social distancing goals. Data that helps you understand how users are congregating can help you make decisions on which spaces to close or open.

Space scheduling software offers a variety of reports to help you gather this information. Room type utilization reports, for example, are excellent sources for tracking overall space utilization levels, especially if you can limit by room, building, campus or other space type. Seat occupancy reports, which record how many people are booked in a particular space, allow you to analyze average seat fill percentages so that you can adjust your percentage goals as more employees return to the office. And space utilization reports help you understand when one meeting room has a utilization of, say, 70%, while another one has only 30% – so you can then determine when you might want to guide employees to use alternative spaces.

Four Considerations for Supporting the Great Return to the Office

Going No Touch

Technology made it much easier for segments of the population to work from home, and it will also play a huge role in keeping employees and campus visitors safe as we make our way back into our shared physical spaces. But it promises to look a bit different from before. Previously, technology encouraged physical contact – touch screens for kiosks and rooms signs, for example – but this activity may not be as preferable moving forward.

Your return-to-work plan should therefore consider ways to book and use spaces with as little physical contact as possible. For example, space reservation software like EMS allows for badge swipes for no-touch room booking. This was implemented before COVID because it is simple and straightforward for users, but it has become more of a priority in the new workplace experience. RFID-enabled card or swipe can create a reservation and check an employee into a space, while some digital room signs also offer badge authentication.

In addition, the EMS mobile application allows for check-ins on the fly, enabling your workforce to use their personals device rather than a shared surface. Proximity geofencing can also check employees into workspaces or meetings for the day, or they can use their mobile devices to take pictures of QR codes and enter spaces without needing to tough anything.

There are plenty of other practical, no-touch applications for limiting surface contact in your office, including:

  • Room sensors for automated check-ins
  • SMS notifications that eliminate the need to scroll room signs
  • Integrated building intelligence systems and badge swipe data for check-ins
  • HVAC and lighting integrations based on meeting room data so there’s no manual turning on of lights, heating or cooling
  • Automated door unlocking based on pre-existing reservations

Solving the Real Estate Conundrum

In an environment where real estate costs are rising and square footage per employee is decreasing, companies are rethinking their office real estate needs. The “great return to work” may look like masses of employees and visitors flocking back to the office, but for many organizations a large segment of the workforce will continue to work from home at least some if not most of the time.

Four Considerations for Supporting the Great Return to the Office

Companies can enable continued work from home in numerous ways, including reimbursement of home office equipment like monitors, keyboards, headsets, ergonomic chairs and more. And when remote employees want to come into the office for meetings, workshops or other in-person activities, a desk hoteling reservation system ensures they will adhere to company space guidelines.

The following can help organizations support their hybrid or remote workforce:

  • Seamless VC integrations. The days of A/V technicians having to be present in conference rooms to facilitate meetings are long gone. Instead, you can simply click a button in videoconferencing equipment that is connected to your scheduling software, and it immediately knows which meeting to start. EMS, for instance, integrates with Exchange, Google, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Outlook.
  • A digital-by-default workplace culture. Supporting a digital-first approach involves more than just technology. Having a camera-friendly environment means cameras are turned on so remote staff feel included, connections are automated as much as possible (no more “Can you hear me?”), and all locations are connected to the system so both, say, the Austin office and the Denver office are connected.
  • Evaluating “hidden space.” If you were already tight on space before the pandemic and have trouble meeting social distancing and other requirements without expanding, look for hidden spaces like huddle rooms, sofa seating, lingering areas, alternative offices, phone booths, study rooms, library rooms, board-only rooms, etc. Ask yourself if it makes sense to include those spaces in your considerations for reservable spaces.

Rethinking Organizational Policies

Lastly, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how technology can help during the transition to our next stage of work, but not everything can or should be solved solely with tech. Here at Accruent, we often get questions around what sorts of policies should be implemented on an organizational level. For example, you might not want to create booking rules for every single use case but instead consider the broader picture and then focus on training and communication. But as a tech company, we see ways in which hybrid workforce policies can be assisted with space and resource scheduling software:

  • Visitor management screening. Organization policies around health symptom checks, travel behavior, providing protection like hand sanitizer and more can be aided by software that adds this type of information into your confirmations and notifications and makes sure that employees and visitors are aware of your requirements for them coming into your buildings.
  • WFH phased rotation. A large majority of organizations are offering a phased return, where employees return to the office for 2-3 days per week, and software can help with enforcing self-directed or assigned rotation policies. For example, with assigned rotation, the same group of users is at the office at the same time, limiting the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Workplace amenities. Don’t forget to think about policies for gyms, cafeterias, casual hang-out spots and the like. The CDC has identified these spaces as higher-risk areas, so you must consider how you want to handle these.

Staying Flexible

We hope the above considerations have been useful as you consider how to best accommodate the “great return” to work. Keep in mind that this may not always be a straightforward journey. It will likely entail moving back and forth between phases, postponing some plans, and rolling out different procedures as locations and geographic areas are affected differently. As you move forward, staying flexible will help you change direction when necessary.

To dig a little deeper into this topic, we invite you check out our webinar “Planning for a Future Beyond ‘The Great Return’.”