We're In The Middle of Our Own Human Pilot Program

14 May 2020

Oftentimes, we start a major interior renovation by asking our clients, “What are your organizational drivers and goals for the project?” These drivers and goals advance the development of their workplace strategy, or WPS, as it is known. If that WPS is a modification to an existing way of doing things, we suggest that the client implement a small pilot program of the change to test its merits before rolling it out across the enterprise’s entire portfolio footprint.

As we enter the next phase of this pandemic, organizations should definitely be asking themselves a similar question: “What are our organizational drivers in transitioning employees back to the physical office?” (My colleague, Ashley Dunn, addresses the importance of revisiting workplace strategies and larger organizational goals here.)

During this time, we are uncovering more questions than answers. And that is OK. A few of the major recurring themes include:

  • Should past strategies be reversed long-term in order to continue social distancing?
  • Will company’s find a need for increased square footage?
  • Will corporations have to reduce their portfolio footprints even more than they have over the past two to three years -- as those companies moved to more floor densification -- because employees are no longer comfortable sitting in close proximity to coworkers? Or because more choose to work from home more days a week than in the office, leaving the office a ghost town? Or both?

Not only are we asking questions about the health of the corporate real estate portfolio, but we are also asking questions about the well-being of our employees as a key part of the WPS process. Beyond the questions of how our employees will re-enter their workplaces -- and what employee re-entry will look like -- we’re also asking:

  • What will everyone’s comfort level be wearing a mask?
  • How do a thousand employees navigate elevator usage to access their workplaces in high-rise buildings?
  • For those who can complete the same work at home, what are their motivations, if any, to return to their physical offices?
  • Who should be the first employees re-entering different workplaces?
  • Should participation in re-entry be voluntary?

With these questions in mind, we need to address the core issue: What is the pilot? Since corporations have already moved away from one-desk-to-one-person ratios and 100% occupancy, they must generally build on these WPS foundations as previously planned and conceive effective approaches to work them into this new environment.

It’s important to remain mindful of the positives that have already proven successful in deploying distributed workforces. Start with the reduced environmental impacts having fewer cars commuting in to cities and the reduced stress on employees who spent years sitting in snarled traffic.

In the first phase of a typical pilot, perhaps 15-30% of the workforce enters the office for 3-6 months. As HR, RE, IT, FM teams study employee office interactions, movements, and behaviors, they become a “re-entry taskforce” able to collect and analyze all these various kinds of data, some of which can be collected via smart integrated facilities management software applications. Once there is a comfort level with the number of people in the office and adjustments are made to the office environment, companies can start to think about a second phase of the rollout. This might include, for example, an increase to 50% of the workforce re-entering the shared workplace. These companies will continue to track, observe, and poll employees because their strategy is not static. Lessons learned will reveal key indicators and behaviors that will inform future phases, however many the company deems necessary to support a full office opening.

There is an importance to return to the office. We long for in-office collaboration and connections, as we saw in our own office survey results, while continuing a work from home routine. This balance is more critical to support than ever before.

Like other corporations, Dyer Brown is also planning our own back-to-the-office strategy. Our plan is a phased, rolling return. And while there is no step-by-step tutorial to follow, what this experiment is revealing for us is that it’s acceptable to take the transition strategically, slowly, and in carefully-phased portions. When we come out on the other side of this (I hope!) – we’ll discover that the compassion we have for each other and the proven fact that employees can really do their work anywhere – will position us to quickly rebound and flourish in our everyday routines. I believe that we will emerge from this more prepared for the next global challenges we’ll face, together.

Post authored by

Sara Ross LEED AP
Associate Principal | Director of Corporate Services
Dyer Brown Architects

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