Guest Blog By Ross Forman, Managing Director, BDO

On April 13, The Wall Street Journal noted that for American businesses large and small, “the re-emergence over the coming weeks and months will be fitful, fragile and partial.”

The truth is that no one knows how, much less when,the “new normal” will play out. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unchartered territory, it’s likely that the “new normal” will bring unprecedented changes to how we work. As I write this, aggressive back-to-work measures by some states are competing with warnings that they could backfire with new outbreaks and a renewed need for shutting their economies down. Given all the uncertainty, corporate leadership and executives responsible for real estate and facilities management can be tempted to adopt a “wait and see” posture.

But taking a “wait and see” approach would be a materially missed opportunity, if not a monumental mistake.

The steps that firms take now will have a much wider impact than just whether or not their business survives. These steps will directly affect how a business may maintain and then recover from the present economic crisis. They will dictate how to reboot operations, redefine the business and potentially capitalize on silver-lining opportunities, which can eventually allow them to thrive. On the other hand, companies that are not already working on a revised workplace strategy, as well as planning for workforce reentry and cost reduction, will lose a competitive edge when the economy returns to some sense of stability.

What specific steps should executives be taking now? I’ve identified the five below:

  1. Distribute a Voice of the Employee Survey
  2. Optimize Your Real Estate Footprint
  3. Review and Renew Business Continuity Plan
  4. Develop a Workforce Reintegration Plan
  5. Implement Change Management Plan

Here’s a closer look at each:

1. Distribute a Voice of the Employee Survey

Most companies at least give lip service to the notion that “our employees are our greatest asset.” If ever there were a time to match the walk with the talk, this is it. If companies are starting to think about bringing people back to the workplace, the planning must be built on empathy for employees. It’s critical to hear employees’ concerns and address their fears, and distributing a Voice of the Employee Survey can provide these necessary insights. Organizations need to be prepared to open back up in a manner that prioritizes health and safety first, because people truly are the greatest asset for a business.

The very act of distributing such a survey will demonstrate empathy. More importantly, valuable information will be obtained that should be integrated into the Workplace Reintegration Plan. It allows executives to measure employee engagement, solicit employee input on improving remote work support (i.e., what’s working and what’s not) and identify employee concerns about returning to a work site. Management will be in a position to gauge needs like childcare and special transportation, as well as specific safety concerns, such as continued social distancing and the attendant need for more space between individual workstations. Finally, it will provide a feel for the percentage of employees who want to continue to work from home and the tools that it will take to make that a win-win for both staff and the company.

2. Optimize your real estate footprint

Although there are still many unknowns, companies should begin to look holistically at their real estate portfolio and identify immediate savings and changes versus long-term areas to optimize portfolio performance.

The process for immediate changes will most likely focus on a proactive approach in reaching out to landlords and seeking rent relief based on COVID-19’s impact to the business. Feedback from clients shows that taking a partnership approach with landlords will yield a better outcome than a confrontational position or, worse yet, simply stopping rent payments. Discussions should include requesting a reduction in operating expenses while buildings access has been greatly reduced.

A plan will need to be developed for those locations with near-term lease expirations. This is where a decision matrix will be helpful. Establishing criteria that will support taking a certain action can be quantified to include areas such as:

  • Historical occupancy
  • Cost per FTE
  • Estimated demand
  • Historical profitability

Depending on the response, this will lead to a decision of whether to negotiate a short-term extension, terminate the lease or potentially restructure the lease.

A long-term real estate strategy will require completing ongoing scenario planning and addressing as many “what-ifs” as possible. Much of the determinants remain to be seen as to their longevity (e.g., six-foot office, staggered work shifts, alternating workstations) versus what might be permanent changes in space requirements (e.g., increased remote work, Hub/Flex/WFH portfolio composition, reduced work travel, etc.). Critical to developing a successful strategy will be analyzing post-reentry data to determine what worked and what didn’t, and provide insight into utilization and other considerations that support reimaging the workplace of the future. Flexibility and agility should be foundational to the strategy.

3. Reevaluate and Update Business Continuity Plan (BCP)

Businesses are rapidly adjusting to the changing needs of their people, customers and suppliers, while navigating tremendous financial and operational challenges. An operational Crisis Management Team of key stakeholders can help identify and prioritize these needs to guide the business forward safely and successfully. Part of these adjustments is considering specific aspects of their BCP in terms of what worked and what needs to be improved. Numerous lessons learned have come out of the COVID-19 response to date, including:

  • Increase cross-training to address potential change in personnel.
  • Enhance the helpdesk to address spikes in needs.
  • Obtain copies of and review suppliers’ business continuity plans.
  • Improve training for virtual collaboration tools.
  • Ensure availability and stock of tools required to work from home.
  • Keep up with testing and simulations.
  • Accelerate digitization of the business with new process frameworks that enable rapid response and change.

The key message for companies should be the need to build resilience into their DNA. The ability to react quickly and decisively is critical, knowing that the next crisis is not a question of if, but when.

4. Develop Workforce Reintegration Plan

Over the next few months, as the impacts from COVID-19 stabilize, companies will begin bringing back workers to the physical workplace. Guidance as to when restrictions will be lifted will be coming from multiple sources—including federal, state and local authorities, as well as government health agencies and building management teams—causing timing to be inconsistent and fluid. Despite those variables, businesses must position themselves to build an agile Workforce Reintegration Plan, as there are numerous considerations and input from various stakeholders required to ensure a safe, efficient and effective return.

From an organizational standpoint, the Workforce Reintegration Plan will need to have clearly defined authorities and a decision tree, which should outline in advance who will make necessary decisions and what the criteria for those decisions will be. Each organization will need to determine if and when workforce reentry is both possible and advisable. Once that has been confirmed, the organization needs a detailed execution checklist that defines the necessary steps for each business unit and its related support functions to return to the work site. This includes consideration for any critical third parties that will be necessary to enable workforce reentry and the restoration of onsite operations.

Because there will be a range of variables for each organization to consider, it’s important to bear in mind that, in most cases, it will only be possible to achieve a partial opening before there can be a full-scale opening. Throughout the phases of reopening, key stakeholders must consider what objectives are most important to achieve at each stage, what indicators will trigger the progression to the next stage and what actions need to be taken to achieve each of these objectives.

The heart of an organization’s Workforce Reintegration Plan is an open, transparent communication plan that addresses the details of the transition. Leadership will need to make key decisions, such as:

  • What needs to be accomplished through communications?
  • Who is the targeted audience and is it the same plan for all employees?
  • What method will be used to receive two-way feedback?
  • How will responses from the Voice of Employee Survey be incorporated?
  • What training will be provided to employees on new policies and protocols?
  • What will the escalation policies include?

The core of the communication plan should be to provide details around the workplace reopening, with specific updated policies, procedures and protocols. It should be drafted with a safety-first priority and built on employee empathy. Drafting FAQs that address as many potential situations and questions as possible will support easing employees’ fears.

A workforce reentry taskforce comprised of internal stakeholders from Ops, HR, IT, finance and other relevant departments should be assembled. This taskforce does not have to be the same team as the Crisis Management/BCP members, as some of those participants may still be addressing other priorities.

Examples of policies, procedures and protocols to consider may include:

  • Develop complete sanitization, health and disinfecting protocols
  • Arrange for enhanced office cleaning with the janitorial service
  • Create a supply list for necessary sanitary supplies, monitor inventory and ensure availability with suppliers
  • Inform on physical requirements for reentry (e.g., temperature checks, etc.)
  • Decide which amenities will or will not be available (e.g., food and beverage, etc.)
  • Changes to onsite meeting protocols
  • Changes to walking patterns to maximize employee distancing
  • Modifications to the office and workstation configurations
  • Potential removal of door handles
  • Signage reinforcing new policies and protocols
  • Disable room-mounted meeting schedulers
  • Determine what employee assistance may be available (e.g., childcare, transportation, etc.)
  • Enable employee contract tracing as recommended by government entities
  • Revise guest and visitor policies, and restrict access to certain categories of site visitors, such as vendors and contractors
  • Restrict the general public’s access to the worksite
  • Restrict access to only certain workplace areas
  • Develop policies around temporary help in the event a subset of the full-time workforce becomes unavailable
  • Determine internal workforce reentry guidelines that are in sync with federal and state recommendations
  • Develop milestones that must be achieved for return to work/rebound
  • Addresses multiple “what-ifs” (e.g., travel policy, hygiene, virus rebound, etc.)
  • Implement a Phased Opening/Transition – for critical and non-critical staff

Considerable coordination will be required with every landlord, as property owners will have their own requirements for building openings. Further, landlords will be in the process of making material upgrades, such as air filtration, touchless elevators, touchless hand sanitizers, new signage, automatic doors, etc. To avoid sticker shock, tenants should be aware of these changes and address the question of “who is paying” well before next year’s operating expense reconciliation is received.

5. Change Management Plan

Ensuring that employees understand what changes they can anticipate to successfully adapt to the “new normal” will require a well-developed Change Management Plan. The plan should reinforce that these changes are designed to assist in keeping employees safe. The Change Management Plan should align with all communications so there is consistent repetition in messaging.

A tried and true approach to creating a Change Management Plan is to use the ADKAR model. It outlines the goals and outcomes of successful change by providing a methodology to ensure activities are completed efficiently and effectively. This can also provide a framework for businesses to complete an after-action report on how well these drastic changes were managed and implemented, which can help identify how to increase resilience and make program enhancements for the future. This is especially important to prepare for any potential resurgence or “second wave” of the virus outbreak, which many experts have warned could occur.

The five elements show the milestones an organization must achieve for

a change to be successful: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement.

  1. Awareness of the business reasons for change. Awareness is a goal or outcome of the communication plan related to changes that will be part of workforce reentry.
  2. Desire to engage and participate in the change. Desire is a goal or outcome of leadership and the change management team to address resistance management.
  3. Knowledge about how to change. Knowledge is a goal or outcome of training programs that should be implemented to support employees reentering the workplace.
  4. Ability to realize or implement the change at the required performance level. Ability is not just awareness of what the changes are, but how to actually be in a position to implement them.
  5. Reinforcement to ensure that change sticks. Reinforcement is a goal or outcome of adoption.

It is safe to say that no business has ever experienced the drastic effects that COVID-19 has and will continue to have on the economy. We are all learning and adapting to events as they unfold, but simply reacting to exterior events in not a plan. It is vital to use the information that is currently available, including important lessons learned from inception, and proactively build a robust Workplace Reintegration Plan to ensure a safe, efficient and effective return to the workplace whenever it occurs.

Ross Forman is a Managing Director in BDO’s Corporate Real Estate Advisory Services practice