Over the next 9-18 months, real estate will look and operate differently than ever before. Unforeseen economic pressures and public health considerations will shape the new normal.
How can global real estate leaders look beyond the current crisis to build long-term resilience? How can they propel their organizations forward and support their workforce through digital transformation?
We gathered a group of experts from Siemens, Deloitte, Cushman Wakefield, Herman Miller, and Gensler to help answer those questions. Here are a few key takeaways from our conversation.
The new resilience is not just continuity, but flexibility
As COVID-19 forced entire companies to work remotely overnight, the first priority was ensuring health and physical safety. Then, it was incorporating new technology, like secure video conferencing, to enable remote work. Now, leaders are concerned with bringing employees safely back to the office.
Successful buildings will be able to flex quickly by shifting occupancy levels and space planning in response to safety needs. The more flexible buildings and portfolios are, the better companies can respond to future changes — whether that’s a near-term spike in COVID-19 cases or some unforeseen future disruption.
If the old resilience was about recovery from disasters, the new resilience is the ability to react when something happens.
Short-term investments must support long-term visions
But instead of throwing out technology “Band-Aids” to meet goals for the current crisis, leaders should step back and consider how those investments meet long-term needs. Will new technology improve collaboration for months or years to come? Will it benefit health, safety, sustainability and employee experience, or just one of those goals?
To answer those questions, real estate leaders will need to understand more about how people work. That means collecting more and better data.
Resiliency requires data-driven decision making
The data that companies collect over the next 3-12 months will be the foundation for their strategies going forward. If leaders don’t collect the right data, they won’t know when it’s safe to return to the office. (Or, how safe the office actually is when people come back.)
However, leaders also have a responsibility to make that data as intuitive as possible, with meaningful results and dashboards leaders can act on. Even great data won’t help if it’s overwhelming to decision makers.
COVID-19 will be a forcing function for new technologies
The same shock to the system that accelerated company-wide investments in remote-work technology, like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, will also accelerate investments in digital buildings.
Occupancy sensors and connected, touchless experiences will be crucial to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Predictive sensors, for instance, can allow employees to move through the workplace without touching door handles or elevator buttons. Streamlined access control will be key, too, so visitors and employees can flow through without risking bottlenecks at the badge check.
HVAC systems, meanwhile, will move towards continuous commissioning instead of the outdated run-to-failure model, with new sensors for air quality monitoring and handling. Now, more than ever, IT will need to work with real estate leaders to plan for these connected technologies.
Leaders will reconsider the value of real estate
Even before COVID-19, there was a disconnect between how offices are designed and how people actually work. Most organizations took an outdated, binary view: you’re either 100% an office worker or you’re 100% remote.
Overall, the work from home experiment has been a success, even as social cohesion and corporate culture have suffered. In some ways, this real estate reckoning is overdue, since most knowledge work companies haven’t needed to work from a physical office for many years. While the office certainly won’t go away, space will be leveraged in new and different ways.
Companies will look for new ways to communicate with occupants
Technology like occupancy sensors can give leaders quantifiable data, but they still need qualitative data about what’s working on the ground and what’s not. 2-way communication in workplace experience apps like Comfy can help.
With an app like Comfy, users can submit a work request and immediately get a response. 2-way communication also makes safety measures like demand-based cleaning possible, giving building managers much faster, actionable feedback than a survey would. And, by giving people contextualized information based on their space, apps can help people feel safe in addition to being safe. When it comes to building trust, an email is not enough.
Building managers can use a combination of machine learning and regular meetings to review the aggregate employee feedback and look for patterns. If, for instance, air quality deteriorates to a certain threshold on a crowded floor, the app could ask a few people to work elsewhere temporarily. If quality continues to be poor, those moves could become permanent.
With a combination of quantitative and qualitative data, building managers will be empowered to make better, more flexible decisions about their portfolio.
Thanks to our panel for a thoughtful discussion!
For more COVID-19 workplace insights, explore Comfy's Return to Workplace Playbook and our new Safe Workplace solution.