Back in March, the risks associated with going into the office amidst COVID-19 forced professionals into Zoom meetings while working from home. Now, as the business world adjusts its work environments to a new normal, companies are updating their office space strategies to be more cognizant of the current dangers and uncertainties COVID-19 presents.

For companies remaining remote, physical offices are no longer necessary or even sustainable, especially in high-density urban environments. For those testing out hybrid models of remote and on-site work, returning to the office will require altering the space in several ways—either updated with new pandemic safety precautions or re-sized to appropriately support smaller numbers of employees.

While catching up at the coffee machine seems to be a thing of the past, for now, companies are still looking to bring staff back to the office. There are various approaches to this, and while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are several avenues companies can take to maximize how their space works for them.

Here are three ways you can make your office space work for you moving forward:

1) Update Safety and Compliance

If your company must reopen fully, prioritise the implementation of safety measures and the compliance of building systems.

Most offices were designed to maximize capacity, therefore furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E) must be evaluated to confirm if modifications are required. Installing barriers or panels between workstations is one option that allows for collaboration while maintaining safety. Opting for a rotational schedule of workstations used on alternating days is another low-tech choice that we see many companies adopting.

Additionally, if your company left the office thinking the shutdown would be short-term, you will need to inspect your plumbing, electric, and HVAC systems before going back to make sure everything is up and running for a smooth return.

Listen to your employees, prioritise safety measures such as PPE and cleaning supplies, and make sure all protocols from your local governing bodies are met before re-opening your doors.

2) Look to Right-Size, Not Just Downsize

It’s likely your company has already rolled out your Return to Office plan. Many companies have made the return voluntary and will have many staff choosing to continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.

Assessing the long-term impact may include discussions about right-sizing your space. This strategy is one that CRE professionals are strongly considering during this pandemic.

Office space sitting idle is difficult to justify on the balance sheet. One of our Fortune 100 tech company clients faced a challenge this summer when deciding what to do with sales office space sitting empty. Their sales reps were continuing to spend most of their time working from home or out at client sites. It therefore became an ineffective use of space and money to have unused offices. They decided to close more than 10 of their sales sites and redeploy assets within the remaining portfolio. The change required them to re-think how they had imagined the use of their space, but once they had made the decision, the task was completed within 120 days.

Another global pharmaceutical company client adopted a new seating programme. With attention already focused on this industry, it would be easy to assume that they might need to increase space in response to the competitive race for a COVID-19 vaccine. Our client was ready to embark on a renovation project in the spring of 2020 when COVID hit, and it was forced to right-size. Instead of adding additional desks in response to the once growing demand, it accelerated the implementation of an unassigned seating programme on campus. When non-essential staff return to the office, they will adopt a rotational shift schedule with teams coming back in small groups, leaving almost half of workstations empty to ensure safety. Right sizing their already planned project to respond to the need for space, while balancing safety, will allow them to avoid or defer the planned densification.

This transition for office space isn’t as simple as “less people, less space”. There are nuances specific to each business’s needs that need to be carefully evaluated.

3) Decommission: Plan your Exit

Decommissioning, or “going offline”, means leaving a space unoccupied for a prolonged period or preparing to permanently close or relocate an office. If your office spaces have been unoccupied for some time, it is a good idea to ensure an exit plan includes a review of the condition of existing plumbing, electric, and HVAC systems to confirm any necessary restorative work. For some, like our tech company client mentioned above, creating, and implementing a decommissioning plan for their sales offices was something they felt they needed support with. Hiring a consultant like MovePlan allowed them to focus on the strategy while leaving the tactical planning and implementation to industry professionals.

Ending lease agreements may be the most efficient way to continue running your business in this unprecedented time. Whether your space seats 5 or 500, consult your lease agreement to understand landlord stipulations such as notice provisions, cleaning, and restorations. Assessing the timeline and internal and external resources available to you is a critical next step.

Shedding real estate costs is also an opportunity to divert that capital into technology and other employee centric resources as companies continue to work from home. Concurrently, companies have the chance to boost their corporate sustainability strategy by disposing items safely or donating assets they no longer need.

Staying Agile for the Future

There is still much uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in the future, therefore your space management strategy needs to stay agile and current.

While offices are currently being decommissioned or updated, it is probable that these changes will need to be revised as the virus is contained and businesses modify their long-term working plans.

Whatever your right-sizing plan may look like, using an outside professional consultant to help you manage the strategy and implement the plan may help to you to react quickly if need be. Doing so, may allow your team to focus on what they do best, and get back to the business of running the business.

Companies must stay aware, be innovative, and have compassion as we all traverse this uncertain time of business during the pandemic.

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