The “great work-from-home experiment” has resulted in changes and realizations.
It will likely be over a year from the time most companies shifted to remote working, before a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available in Canada. By then, the positive and negative aspects of working from both the office and home will have been well tested.
Studies indicate that post-COVID, most employees will prefer to adopt a hybrid working environment. Most employers will try to accommodate this preference, particularly if they have seen improvements in employee productivity and engagement as a result of remote working.
But even after an effective vaccine and anti-viral medication are developed and made available, the effects of the virus will linger for some time post-pandemic, three of which are addressed in this column.
Buildings will focus more on health and wellness
While building systems were constantly improving pre-COVID with regards to airflow, sustainability, and cost and energy efficiency, occupants are now paying more attention to health and wellness. This will accelerate implementation of initiatives focused on these aspects, according to John Duda, president, real estate management services with Colliers Canada.
“Going beyond building systems, health and wellness programs could be amenity-driven, focusing on how buildings use outside space, for example,” Duda says. “Case in point: Colliers Canada’s Real Estate Management Services Team, in partnership with building owner Desjardins Life Assurance Company, put in a street-level urban garden at 95 St. Clair in Toronto, spanning the building’s entrance all the way onto the street.
“Tenants participate in this initiative, and vegetation grown in the garden is donated to a local shelter. Tenants and community members alike are highly engaged with the program, demonstrating the positive, lasting impact of maximizing a property’s space and amenities for health and wellness purposes.”
95 St. Clair, an International TOBY (The Outstanding Building of the Year) Award winner, also has energy efficiency methods and leading environmental practices in place, benefiting occupants with its efforts to promote sustainability and well-being.
“WELL and Fitwell Building certifications have been increasingly adopted over the past decade, turning owners’ and occupiers’ attention from sustainability alone to a more wholesome view of the built environment and how people behave within it,” says Robyn Baxter, vice president, workplace strategy and innovation with Colliers Canada. “We can expect to see additional dimensions to these, reflecting post-COVID concerns and preparing for potential future pandemics.
“BOMA, ASHRAE, LEED and other building systems standards are already being updated to reflect raised expectations on how building systems are designed and operated.”
Hygiene and sanitation will also remain paramount post-pandemic.
“In the short-term, there has been an increase in both surface and systems cleaning, which will continue for the foreseeable future,” Duda says.
Antimicrobial materials and surfaces will become a necessity. Touchless technology will become the expectation, both in building common areas and offices.
Synthia Kloot, Colliers Canada’s senior vice president of brokerage operations, comments: “Colliers’ Toronto offices are now equipped with Bluetooth-enabled coffee machines that dispense beverages without employees having to touch the buttons on the screen. I foresee increased use in buildings of touchless doors and washroom flushes, voice-activated or foot-operated elevators – even voice-print automation.”
Just as important as the improvements buildings owners make to their properties is the need to take the technical specifications of such improvements, and communicate them directly, simply and meaningfully to tenants’ employees. Silence will raise questions and concerns and may even create unease and mistrust.
The workplace itself is likely to change dramatically
Thirty years of workplace densification is likely to reverse course, to some degree.
According to Colliers Canada’s Work from Home Survey Results, almost 60 per cent of respondents claimed individual, focused work is better performed at home. As I mentioned in Part I of this column, employee belief that having a private, dedicated space aids in increased productivity will lead to a growing demand for private or quiet space in their workplace to allow for greater concentration.
However, a balance must be struck between employees’ desire for a private workspace and employers’ need for cost – and space – efficiency.
Today, most companies offer either a dedicated (assigned offices/workstations) or agile (unassigned seating) environment.
We may very well see the introduction of “semi-assigned” seating that will have small groups with compatible hybrid work schedules sharing private offices with colleagues with whom they are comfortable. This solution could be the balance of cost-efficiency and the productivity benefits of a dedicated, private workspace.
While there will be a greater demand for individual workspaces and potential shifts in workplace accommodation, the role of collaborative spaces in the office environment will not only stay intact but become more integral.
“A side effect of remote working is that people miss collaborating, having ‘water cooler’ conversations and bumping into one another – all important interactions for relationship-building,” says Kerris Hougardy, Colliers’ vice president of people services for North America. “For days employees are in the office, collaborative and social spaces with functional technology, where people can have coffee or meetings, or ‘bump into’ coworkers and build connections, will be critical.”
“Creating a sense of community will be more challenging – and more essential – as people embrace staggered workdays,” Kloot says. “There will need to be a deliberate creation of spaces where people can physically come together, with the ability to ‘broadcast’ events so those working from home can participate.”
Continued remote working will certainly demand more from workplace technology.
With organizations adopting hybrid work structures, seamless interaction among team members, whether in the office or elsewhere, is important to ensure all employees feel included and are inclusive, and companies are authentic, truly supportive of employees working from the office or home, and not sending an unconscious bias message that they actually want all staff to work from the office full-time.
Meeting rooms and desks will need to be equipped with technology allowing for ubiquitous meetings among employees wherever they may be working.
Kloot, co-lead for Colliers’ diversity and inclusion program, adds: “As people continue to work from home and don’t experience face-to-face connections, it’s especially important to focus on inclusion of the work scenarios and be more mindful of holding inclusive events that foster relationships and culture, and make employees feel part of the team. As circumstances differ, we need to maintain the momentum we have set.”
Finally, with the formed habits of social distancing and minimal contact enduring post-pandemic, efficient access and egress will be more important for employers and their staff, shifting – quite literally – building pricing models. Lower floors may start to attract premium pricing because accessible entry and exit points will become a higher priority for occupants.
Amenities within buildings will also likely change
The importance of quality, accessible and affordable childcare solutions has been reinforced during the pandemic. Indeed, a reason many businesses have not been able to resume operations is the difficulty employees are facing in securing childcare.
Employers and landlords looking to attract a millennial workforce are likely to make this element a higher priority in their building selection criteria or base of amenities.
As well, according to Hougardy, “There will be a move towards more expansive areas in buildings where people can safely and comfortably sit, chat and eat. We see such spaces in buildings now, but employees’ desire to socialize and connect with others – in areas thoughtfully designed to accommodate post-pandemic expectations – will lead to the creation of more.”
The pandemic has also made door-to-door delivery more prevalent, and employees will want access to this service in the workplace. Buildings will need a robust solution enabling occupants to receive, return and hold packages on-site.
Existing amenity areas could potentially be converted to “package depots”; otherwise, reception areas within tenant spaces will be overrun.
Part-time work in the office will likewise influence the operational models for certain amenities.
Current daily/hourly parking rates are excessive in most CBDs for workers driving to the office only a couple of days a week, and monthly parking passes will go underutilized. New-generation parking models that affordably meet the needs of building occupants will need to be created.
The same philosophy will apply to building fitness facilities and other similar types of services.
Navigating the future of work will call for thoughtful, strategic advice.
It is critical for us as industry experts to determine best practices rooted in fact rather than historical bias, which will help businesses optimize office operations in this new landscape, and employees feel safe and supported. Asking the right questions, be it via actual conversations or pulse surveys, is as imperative as giving the right answers.
Staying ahead of trends is as necessary as responding to the current situation.