7 not-so-obvious tips for implementing a healthy return-to-office strategy

JLL’s Healthy Returns team—with guidance from the CDC, EPA, ASHRAE, OSHA, WHO, and the World Green Building Council—is helping organizations around the world implement technology-centric plans for re-entry. What have these companies learned, and how can you apply the findings to your organization’s return-to-office strategy?

1. A one-size-fits-all plan for return to office doesn’t exist

Though you can learn a great deal from organizations that have already returned to the office by hearing corporate real estate (CRE) leaders share best practices or using a comprehensive return-to-office checklist and helpful resources, you’ll need to customize your approach to meet your organization’s specific needs.

You can use all the best practices—from indoor air quality programs to enhanced cleaning—but everyone’s re-entry plan is different. Everyone’s way to implement is different: The timing is different, and cultures are unique.

Kelly Spinola

Global product owner, facilities management, JLL

2. Most organizations will be returning to a hybrid workplace

After months of successful remote work, employees aren’t necessarily eager to return to the office full-time: 74% of employees reported wanting more choice about when they come into an office. As a result, the role of the office is shifting. It’s no longer the primary place where people perform individual tasks or focus work. Instead, the workplace will be the hub for collaborating as well as socializing (which helps create stronger teams)—both of which are essential to positive employee experiences.

The hybrid workplace isn’t so much a “nice to have” anymore. It’s inevitable for most companies. If you haven’t been able to wrap your head around it and what it means for corporate real estate teams, now is the time for a crash course in going hybrid.

Even executives who’ve been hesitant to change and who have a vested interest in everyone coming back to the office are beginning to say the hybrid workplace is here to stay.

Edward Wagoner

Digital CIO, JLL Technologies

3. Employee behaviors change with each return phase

The employees first to opt-in to returning to the office are likely the least concerned about the virus. Because they’re not as concerned about COVID-19, they may quickly revert to pre-pandemic behaviors. For example, with only a few employees working in a large space, they may feel safe without masks on and may be able to socially distance, even if they don’t follow the traffic patterns you’ve marked. While the effects of non-compliance with low occupancy may be minimal (in certain settings), as more people return to the office, risk increases.

Expect that the employees who return after your buildings officially re-open will behave and feel differently than those who are on-site now. Employees who return last will need the most support. They’re the most apprehensive and may be inclined to resign if they don’t feel safe returning to the office. Their confidence to independently return and work productively in the workplace is the best test of your return to office committee’s performance.

Employees who have chosen to delay their return to the workplace will likely be concerned about what to expect emotionally, logistically, and/or financially. As a result, providing support to employees should be a key area of focus for companies as employees return at scale.

Jennifer Hill

Global product owner for sustainability integration and JLL Healthy, JLL

4. Technology is an essential component of your re-entry plan

This dynamic environment is difficult (or impossible) for most organizations to implement manually. Sure, the need for workplace technologies loomed large before the pandemic—but now, the need is far more dire. Organizations have to make decisions based on rapidly changing conditions, government and health regulations, employee sentiments and habits, etc.

In a recent study, CRE decision-makers now rank facilities and/or real estate management technology as “important” or “extremely important” across the board, from ensuring health and safety for employees and visitors to measuring real-time space and portfolio utilization.

5. Return to office and hybrid workplace solutions are built using existing workplace tech

Our “CRE roundtable: building a successful ‘return-to-office’ strategy” webinar made it abundantly clear that the reason organizations such as Citrix, Rice University, and Genentech were able to leap to action so successfully was that they already had the teams and/or technologies in place. All they had to do was repurpose them to address this black swan event.

For example, Greg Nuyens, senior director of advanced workplace solutions for Genentech, shared that his team tweaked their VergeSense sensors to be able to detect and locate social-distancing violations. He also shared an innovation they’d started but ramped up to accommodate a hybrid workplace: head-mounted tablets, which team members use to learn how to use lab equipment when their instructor is remote.

6. Don’t use badging to understand occupancy or utilization—use sensors

More people than ever are occupying workplaces for less than a full workday. If you don’t have occupancy sensors, it’s tempting to use data from employee badges to understand true occupancy numbers throughout a day. While you can glean some information from keycard activity, you can’t know which areas are being used or even if the employees are using the areas at the same time. Thus, you cannot meaningfully rely on badge swipes to inform occupancy and utilization. Why not just track badge-out activity? In emergencies, most regulations require that all access doors be fail-safe, meaning they’re able to be opened without electricity or a badge/keycard so people can exit safely. Additionally, some companies opt to not gather keycard data altogether or only track entry, for instance.

“We only badge in. We don’t badge out,” said Nuyens, “and that’s to guarantee the privacy of our colleagues.”

7. Partnerships with CRE experts are more helpful than ever before

Return to office is a major undertaking, but it’s not totally uncharted territory. Automation, smart sensors, and the hybrid workplace have been understood by FM and CRE teams for a while. Some organizations even already have the technologies they need—it will all come down to process and implementation. There’s a lot to learn, and with all eyes on you and your team, it’s easy to feel you’re expected to know everything. But you don’t have to know it all.

You have a partner who can help: the CRE experts at JLL Technologies.