Guest post by Bernice Boucher, Managing Director, JLL Consulting

COVID-19 has suddenly transformed where and how we work, with immediate and long-term implications alike. Virtually overnight, employers with little to no experience managing remote work found themselves empowering teams to work effectively from home offices—or in many cases, kitchen tables. Even organizations with robust flexible work policies already in place have been challenged to stretch their boundaries and support capabilities to accommodate the new, sudden surge in remote work. 

While we’ve seen more companies experience firsthand the productivity and engagement benefits that can come with enabling employees to work when and where they want, the “next normal” will likely be a mix of both ways of working. What that looks like will be unique to each organization.

Leaders moving toward reopening physical workplaces must grapple with all-new questions. Most notably, how can you effectively ensure social distancing in densely designed offices for as long as it takes to get through this pandemic? In many scenarios, the way forward will include keeping some people at home for an extended period of time, as well as potentially rotating who comes in, and when.

So, how can you give your teams what they need to be productive, effective and connected as increasingly distributed work becomes more standard?

Key ways to empower a distributed workforce, now and later

Today’s real estate leaders have a historic opportunity to reimagine “the next normal” with years of innovation compressed into a just a few months—at least in terms of re-envisioning the workplace and how we work. In the near term, this means reactivating space safely and effectively; in the long run, it means creating more flexible, human-friendly environments that blur the lines between virtual and in-person work.

First and foremost, employers must approach re-entry with a sense of preparedness, agility, and resilience. Establish clear guidelines that prioritize health and wellbeing, including facilitating physical distancing by spreading apart workspaces and re-evaluating how shared collaboration spaces are used and managed. Also, “building health” issues must be scrutinized, from ventilation and air filtration to cleaning and facilities management protocols.

Now is the time to build or refine the elements of your virtual workplace, too. For example, do all your teams have the basic technology they need to work remotely? Further, do they have an effective means of collaborating effectively, whether by internal chat messaging, video-conferencing, and/or creative virtual cultural initiatives? These efforts can support remote work both now, as you slowly and steadily bring people back in to the physical workplace, and later, when mobility may also prove a win-win.

For the longer term, leaders should consider early and often how to balance health, safety and financial implications against a backdrop of uncertainty. Organizations will need to be prepared for episodic relaxation and re-imposing of workplace guidelines to ensure worker and community safety is prioritized as state and local governments monitor how a phased re-opening and re-entry impacts the COVID-19 cases in their communities.

Clear communication with employees is essential to provide transparency during these fast-changing times. Employers should also seek their employees’ input on when and under what conditions they will feel comfortable coming back to the office. The human element and the fear factor associated with the pandemic and return to work should not be overlooked.

In a post-pandemic world, we expect trends like benching, shared desks, and hoteling stations to be re-evaluated, with increased space allocation per employee becoming more common again. At the same time, face-to-face collaboration may become more valuable than ever, too.  Employers will be challenged with how to enable that in-person collaboration and optimized human experience that’s really a driving force behind going to the office in the first place, as rigorous social distancing and other health and safety protocols need to be prioritized, too.

Long term, in order for the future to be resilient and adaptable, the work processes have to be designed for – or minimally inclusive of – the worker not in the office. What is the value of place in a virtual world?  The answer will require a deep understanding of why employees come to the office and the unique value they derive from working there, and perhaps realizing a new vision for the office that is designed specifically for those specific needs – socialization, collaboration, connection, inspiration and more. 

Striking the right balance of safe, private space and positive, in-person collaboration areas won’t be easy. But advanced analytics programs together with deep understanding of each organization’s workforce culture can help you make best-informed decisions.  

Throughout history, major disruption in our world has often sparked major innovation. The time is now for real estate leaders to call on that same spirit of innovation to reimagine where and how we work—supporting success now and through future change.

Bernice Boucher is a Managing Director with JLL Consulting. She has more than 20 years of experience in workplace strategy, change management and human experience, advising clients on how to leverage their real estate and workplace programs to enhance the productivity of their greatest asset, their people.