Enabling a safe return to the workplace…

Publication: RICS Property Journal
Date: 18th January 2021
Author: Claudia Conway

What can space management software offer to support people’s return to the office- and how can occupiers adapt to ensure a safe environment?
While some parts of the real-estate sector have gone into virtual hibernation during the pandemic, one has perhaps been unusually busy. Providers of space management software, whose products could support a safe return to workplaces, have been liaising closely with their clients to lay out the options.

Although it may still look some way off, especially during winter in the northern hemisphere and in the UK with the current lockdown conditions, there is no doubt that occupiers and indeed asset owners should be considering now how they will enable a return to the office once conditions allow.
The likelihood of such a return, even on a part-time basis for many knowledge workers – such as those working in software, content or finance among others- will vary. For an already spacious out-of-town office where employees drive to work, it may be a possibility in the near future; for a crowded, high-rise office in the city, where most occupants take public transport and use lifts to access the space, it represents a thornier problem until vaccination programmes are widely rolled out.

Software supplier Accruent says feedback from its clients suggests that they will be looking at a variety of responses, whether these be creating a more hub-and-spoke arrangement with central headquarters and smaller offices outside city centres, taking flexible space, or simply downsizing offices and relying primarily on home working.

In any case, technology suppliers believe they may be able to aid confidence in return to the office in the form of room-booking software. After all, this requires no physical changes to workplaces, and can be upgraded to include any new features necessary for space management while controlling infection.

Technology approaches

Software provider Condeco’s customer operations director John Hildebrand believes that the days of unplanned space use may be gone, and this could remain a feature even attar the threat of COVID-19 subsides. With reduced desk availability, workers will then need to be able to book in advance if they are to come in.

“Desk-closing” options are becoming a feature of software to ensure employees are spread out across the space. This provides an alternative to physical alterations such as the addition of screens between desks.

Meanwhile, as far as Accruent senior account executive for enterprise solutions Chris Law is concerned, efficiency and improved experience still remain important factors, but there is now an added layer of health and safety provision.

Kajima Partnerships supplies the application Spacebooker, and its Head of Community Chris Smith says digital dashboards on office space use “provide significant support for businesses grappling with current pressures on capacity from social distancing, as well as helping to effectively manage teams wanting to work on a more flexible basis in the long term”.

A software-based approach can also be adapted by region to meet government guidelines, or indeed business ones if a company wishes to go above and beyond compliance. It can ultimately reduce disaster recovery costs as well, because physical spaces can be more easily managed in a crisis. Indeed, as Law points out, what the software needs to do will vary depending on the region, and where we are in the cycle of controlling the pandemic.

Businesses may in some systems be able to set up priority roles so those whose jobs may require them to be in the office more than others get first dibs on available space. Providers Smartway suggest setting up questions upon booking to ask why staff wish to come In-this could allow employers to potentially veto if they don’t feel the reason is essential, and more importantly gather data on why people are coming in and responding to that where necessary. One example Smartway gives Is that if people are coming in because they need equipment they do not have at home, an employer might, if feasible, consider sending out that equipment to their homes to minimise the need for office usage. The days of unplanned space use may be gone, and this could remain a feature even after the threat of COVID-19 subsides.

Hygiene and infection management

Providers are also adding capacity to use software for scheduling and targeting cleaning. It can record which areas have been used, so cleaners know where to go and when, while occupants have the reassurance of knowing that spaces have been disinfected ahead of use. Check- n functions can also confirm whether someone has actually used a booked space-if not, then no need for cleaning.

“The simple input of cleaning slots in specific areas of the office can give employees the confidence that their health and well-being are being prioritised,” Smith says.

Condeco believes that using software this way could also mean 50% less work is required than blanket cleaning of an entire space, saving time and energy when a workplace is not at full occupancy.

Software may enable infection tracing as well. In the event that an employee is found to have been infectious while in the workplace, access to a record of who was working where can be used to alert those sitting nearest them and perhaps their managers, to keep them informed. The system might include sending out advice to staff members on what to do next-they can then request a test and isolate themselves until they receive the results.
Hardware has its part to play too – setting HVAC to maximise fresh air circulation, as well as simply airing rooms and using natural ventilation where possible are among the recommendations made by the Health and Safety Executive in their ventilation advice. A panoply of products are also now on offer, from self-sanitizing door handles, to UV lights that claim to kill airborne viruses – it may remain to be seen how effective these are, but certainly hands-free products for door opening, lift operation and hand washing will be on the shopping list for those looking to update their buildings for maximum transmission reduction.

Adding the human element

At a webinar hosted by Accruent in October 2020,consultancy EY’s EMEIA strategy and execution leader for real-estate technology and innovation, Matt Graham explained how, as an occupier, the company had enabled a return to the office for some of its teams.

The key was deciding on guiding principles to ensure all staff felt confident the right calls were being made. EY made clear to staff that all its decisions would be informed by science and data. It also instituted phased approaches and lines of management approval around office attendance, plus health checks before staff could come into the office.

The company paid attention to what an employee would experience once they entered the office space. What would they do, when, and where? How could technology help?

Simply providing clear and accessible information -for example on correct use of face masks, navigation around a building, and what areas and equipment can and cannot be used – is important In reducing employee anxiety about being in the office.

EY combined technology with physical signage when necessary, while ensuring everyone who needed had training in the relevant software. A large virtual meeting on its workplace strategy, including facilities management and communications teams, helped to ensure the right messages got to the right people.

The real-estate team at EY is now looking ahead, and considering in particular a more activity-based approach to space use – yet another workplace trend that looks as though it will be expedited by the pandemic.

Looking to the future

Vaccines are promising a move back towards normality in 2021. But it remains likely that workplaces will require precautions throughout the coming year, and there will be no wholesale return to the office as we know it.

Room-booking software has perhaps been seen as a rather humble product in the scheme of things, though the current crisis suggests that, like much technology, it has the capacity to provide more than it was originally designed to do. Facilities managers should be looking closely at what tools they have to hand, and talking to suppliers to see what else they may be able to offer.

Combined with a physical strategy of signage, layout changes and more touch-free hardware, space management software may prove valuable in reassuring occupiers that returning to the workplace is safe, creating confidence that should in turn enable greater productivity.