CoreNet Global’s Senior Director of Content Experience, Sonali Tare, recently spoke with Cheryl Carron, President, Integrated Facilities Management, Sodexo Corporate Services North America on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on corporate real estate (CRE) and facilities management (FM), and what the profession needs to monitor, as organizations start to bring employees back into the office.

Q: How has the current, on-going pandemic impacted facilities management? What do FM managers and corporate real estate professionals need to keep an eye on today that they didn’t need to before COVID-19?

Cheryl Carron: There are two things that come to mind – environmental health and safety, and human experience. These are two areas that we must get right, because if we don’t, nothing else will matter. Both have always been important but are now magnified. For end users, the current situation highlights these in a very different way – it’s not just about PPE. It’s about how an employee feels when they walk into their place of work. Do they feel confident and comfortable? Do they feel assured that their health and safety are paramount, and are being taken care of? How they feel about their work environment is going to impact their productivity while at work. If employees have concerns, are they being addressed? Employees need to feel that they are as safe as they can possibly be, that their wellness is being respected and taken into consideration. They need to feel comfortable being there for the entire duration of the workday. That perception has changed everything we are doing now, and everything we might do in the near to mid-term future. And the reality is that there will be employees who will need to, and want to, come back into the workplace. Some might continue to work from home, but not all work is conducive to being done remotely.

We have to consider these two areas, EHS and Human Experience, as a watermark – they are always there, integrated into each decision, or approach to the work environment- that means within the traditional office as well as outside of it.

Q: Many organizations have turned to remote working fulltime if an employee’s role allows for that. Many have said that they might never bring their employees back to the office. However, most employers would like to allow for collaboration and in-person facetime. How do CRE and FM professionals aid with this need?

Cheryl Carron: We know that more than 50% of employees want some kind of flexibility to their schedules in terms of time spent in the traditional office. From what we’ve seen when we surveyed many of our clients, some will respond to this need at a greater degree. Some will however push towards 100% office presence. For some, that mindset is baked in the culture of their industry  or their organization, as well as the needs of employees and of the profession. Furthermore, not all employees can work from home, given their home situation and many challenges to productivity that might present themselves there.

Essentially, employers are going to juggle many needs here. And FM and CRE professionals need to understand what that means for them (our clients) and also understand that the landscape is changing by the second. There will be a greater need for agile space to support varied employee schedules, whether they’re in or out of the office. In the coming months, we will start to see more and more organizations starting to determine where this will go, and we, as CRE and FM professionals, will have to be ready for rapid course corrections. And once employees start to return on a large scale, we will have to continue to be ready to adjust to how employees are adjusting, and how they are reacting to being back at the workplace.

Robust workplace technology will play an important part as well and will need to be leveraged by CRE and FM to gain real time insights for employee needs, while in office, but also to offer solutions for when they are not in the office. Here IoT will be imperative, as will using the data gathered, and using that information to enhance facility usage. For example, given the anticipated varied nature of occupancy, going forward, there will have be a more flexible maintenance strategy that will allow for changing needs. There will also be an element of communicating with the employee about when they can come into the office, whether a flexible schedule is allowed, and for CRE and FM professionals to be ready for when those employees are back in the office on such flexible schedules.

As employees start to come back into the office, these strategies will continue to evolve. This will not be a one and done thing, and CRE and FM need to be ready for that. Other issues to look out for will be location decisions and flexible spaces. Attention will also be given to talent retention and attraction; the landscape around the war for talent will also change as companies work on firming up their workplace strategies.

Q: Wellbeing, safety and health and security are going to be paramount when bringing employees back – whether full time or for part of the time. These are going to be top of mind for employees and the organizations they work for. What do CRE and FM professionals need to keep in mind when catering to this need? What new issues, that might not have been important previously, do they need to factor in?

Cheryl Carron: Two things I would emphasize:  First- prepare the workplace for any future potential risks that might be on the horizon. There is enough evidence and data to support that there may be other outbreaks that might challenge us in future. Ensuring that there are new standards around building health that are going to have be met will be important. Second – We need to shift our thinking to new infrastructure and design with wellbeing as a critical consideration. While not a big change, since wellbeing was a  priority for some organizations,  it has become an imperative for all organizations. As most leaders will tell you, they were not prepared for a pandemic of the nature and scale of COVID-19, so a change in perspective is required as planning takes place for the future.

With that in mind, infrastructure and design that puts wellbeing at the forefront will not be new, but there will be a different nuance and emphasis placed upon it, how it’s integrated into every detail and the impact that it will have on the output or final product.   What was considered state of the art, world class, and high end yesterday, will now be the standard going forward. For example, HEPA filtration, touchless controls, social distancing, and the technology that supports all this should be integrated into new design standards and new workplace strategies. Some of this will also extend beyond the traditional office to those who work remotely. We will need to serve employees who work from elsewhere as well.

Furthermore, considerations such as building health standards might extend to flexible workspaces, and IOT leveraged to support and respond to daily volume changes. Ultimately, Integrated FM can facilitate the development of spaces and user experiences that create a vital and healthy workplace – wherever that workplace may be.

About Cheryl Carron:

As President, Integrated Facilities Management, Sodexo Corporate Services North America, Ms. Carron is responsible for the development, strategy, and execution of Sodexo’s Integrated Facility Management business. Through her 25 year career in RE & IFM global corporate outsourcing, Ms. Carron’s experience encompasses multiple industry sectors and global geographies. She understands how to bring the trends and technological advances in FM to client partners to create smarter buildings while humanizing the workplace – synergizing talent, data, technology and sustainability to create a workplace of the future.