Let your tech do the heavy lifting for the return-to-office

Technology facilitated the abrupt switch to remote work in 2020. In 2021 (and beyond), technology will play an even more critical role as you return to the office, adapt to new health and safety standards, and address the concerns of returning employees.

Just how important is technology to corporate real estate (CRE), facilities management (FM), and teams? In a March 2021 study conducted by Forrester Consulting, commissioned by JLL, 94% of those surveyed plan to invest in workplace technologies by fall 2021, and more than 50% of those surveyed reported that they find their investments in technologies for both optimizing operational efficiency and portfolio utilization “extremely helpful.”

The path to a successful return will be paved with powerful technologies, some of which you already have in your toolkit. Here are key areas to consider for your organization’s re-entry efforts.

Work from employee feedback wherever possible

Your re-entry strategy will be most effective when it’s based on employee feedback—and honest feedback comes from the front lines. Employees inform team leads, team leads inform management, management works with CRE teams to enact changes. Partner with HR and leadership to understand what’s best for individual workers, teams, and the company.

You might collaborate with HR to send out a survey via an employee experience app, with questions such as:

  • How many days a week do you want to work in the office?
  • What will make returning to the office easier for you?
  • Are there extenuating circumstances you’re willing to share that might make returning especially difficult or concerning for you?
  • What type of work would you prefer to do at the office—for example, large staff meetings, team meetings, brainstorming sessions, individual focus work, etc.?
  • What type of work would you prefer to do from home?

Notably, smart sensors often provide more accurate insights, as they measure what employees actually are doing instead of what they think they are doing or will do.

Be transparent and communicative

The return-to-office may be more of a process than an event. Transmission rates will change as more people are inoculated, and local and regional health regulations can change swiftly. Communicate clearly and often about everything related to re-entry.

The more you can do to prepare people for what the new space looks like, tell them the steps they can take to stay safe in the office, and show them how they can operate effectively within it while still being able to collaborate, the better.

Raymond Hall

Head of HR for JLL Americas

As questions come up, answer them as honestly as you can, and be sure to convey that things won’t be perfect in the beginning and that changes will be iterative. Everyone is learning together, in real time, which is why communication should go both ways. You’ll communicate to employees new cleaning protocols, policies, and strategies and plans for the workplace. And you’ll want to receive communication from employees requesting cleaning, asking questions, and reporting issues. An employee experience app can easily facilitate communication from and to your teams.

Manage the (new) employee experience

“It’s important to consider the psychological impact of physical changes to office space,” said Hall. “There is a multitude of factors to consider, and they all affect the employee experience.”

Be sure to address employee concerns by enacting and enforcing clear protocols for cleaning, building access, and social distancing, based on health mandates, governmental regulations, and company policies. Document these protocols so everyone is on the same page and understands how the policies and procedures will work cohesively.

Start with a re-entry checklist, and consider technology solutions that will make coming back easier and less stressful for employees and your team. For example, touchless technology at doors, in restrooms, and in elevators will reduce the chances of disease transmission—as will automated cleaning. Digital wayfinding can encourage social distancing, and smart sensors can even measure the distance between workers and alert them if they’re too close.

“You may need to limit access to certain areas, implement directional signage, formalize employment shifts to limit occupancy, require the use of masks and stagger start times to account for elevator capacity,” added Hall.

Desk- and room-booking apps are quickly becoming common, almost required, in today’s workplace, and they’ll prove especially useful in the era of the hybrid workplace. Tech that allows workers to control ambient temperature and lighting in their spaces is another way to improve the employee experience. Give meeting rooms new names to help returning employees see spaces with a fresh perspective. Consider, too, that some people will continue to work remotely, so it’s important to work with IT to ensure all meetings have a virtual meeting link (Zoom, Go-to-Meeting, etc.) so remote workers aren’t excluded.

Be flexible

Given the uncertain world we now find ourselves in, change is inevitable. You will learn new things and make adjustments on the fly. Employee sentiment may shift along with external forces or after being back in the office for a while. Technology will enable you to rapidly iterate—and that will earn you and your team the trust of employees and the business.

“Transparency and flexibility will be key to your return-to-work plan,” said Hall.

Your technology will provide real-time data, helping you make optimal decisions and quickly identify cost-cutting opportunities. For example, you may learn that the spaces you’ve designed for collaborative work aren’t being utilized how you expected. A tool that allows you to design and test new configurations, and allows you to optimize your workspaces is a major time- and cost-saver.

Make a technology roadmap

There’s no one-size-fits-all plan, so it’s important to first identify what needs to be solved immediately and what can be solved in subsequent waves. There will be obvious, as well as less obvious, considerations for re-entry.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by technology options, so create a timeline to introduce automation and efficiencies at defined intervals. Prioritize data-driven building operations with real-time monitoring and work order management.

In the March 2021 Forrester Consulting white paper, industry professionals revealed the areas they most need guidance from experts in: technology implementation (53%), technology strategy (51%), data and analytics (47%), technology selection (44%), and system integration (39%).

Choose a partner with deep experience in not only CRE and FM but in the technologies and expertise to help you implement and integrate them for a healthy, safe, smooth return-to-office.