By Laura Woodard
Real Estate & Workplace Program Manager (Ret.)
Google

“…I believe scarcity breeds clarity: it focuses minds, forcing people to think creatively and rise to the challenge.”
Sergey Brin, Google Co-founder & President, Technology
2008 Founders’ Letter (May 2009)

Those words resonated deeply with everyone at Google at a time when the housing market crashed to record lows. Like the Dot-com bubble burst of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Google weathered the storm by embracing Sergey’s words: “Scarcity breeds clarity.” We ruthlessly prioritized, did more with less, and planned for the future.

The world faces a greater challenge in COVID-19. Yes, businesses are closing. But this time, people are dying from an enemy not interested in instant online business success or low mortgage rates. Companies of all sizes and types have closed their doors not because of economic strain; they’re shuttered to keep employees and customers alive.

As the business community prepares to reopen, its path remains fraught with perils we don’t understand, nor are prepared to face. Social distancing is defining a new workplace structure that may require a completely different work model based on remote employees, staggered shifts, and smaller footprints. But one thing is certain: we won’t go back to the way things were in January 2020.

Get out of the weeds

It’s easy to become mired in the day-to-day issues of getting back to business under COVID-19. You’ve got a lot of questions—but they may not be the right ones. Instead of only planning where to put hand sanitizer stations, you should also be asking how you’ll adjust to changes two to five years from now.

Crises will come and go, but how you adapt to the changes those emergencies foster is the difference between success and failure. There’s no crystal ball to guide your decision-making, but focusing on change management vs. crisis management requires big-picture vision.

First, create a cross-functional team including executive management, HR, people managers, and employees who work in lockstep on strategies that cover a two-to-five-year horizon. The team should meet on a regular basis to assess current strategies and make adjustments. Note: there may be an existing cross-functional team established already that you can leverage for this longer-term outlook.

Because there’s no one-size-fits-all change management structure, the cross-functional team should create a decision tree that identifies the strategies, tactics, and incidentals your business needs to succeed. Think of each branch as a different strategic path you take depending on the change that’s required.

Finally, plan for likely scenarios. Play the “If this, then that” game to identify and plan for internal and external circumstances. Your decision tree determines which of these tactics to use and the cross-functional team ensures the right work gets done at the right time.

These plans aren’t tabletop exercises based on imagination, but on data. Your cross-functional team should determine how to measure business success during the reopening phase. Specific metrics and outcomes will help clarify how a physical comeback to the office—even at a partial level—will support operations. Key areas to explore are employee uncertainty, the effects of social distancing on capacity, and long-term lease considerations.

The human element

Because the workplace is a microcosm of society, there’s a human element to consider as you reopen your business. You need to acknowledge that employees are dealing with a heightened state of individual fears as well as a sense of loss. In addition to anxiety surrounding their personal lives, they could be carrying residual stress from this extended shutdown and the negative impacts it may have had on your company.

As you welcome employees back to the office, offer clear communication channels for them to voice their concerns. Their apprehensions may involve workplace-related issues like the process of returning to the building, issues with public transportation, or private considerations about a family death, mental health, or a lack of access to childcare.

If your company has multiple locations, be aware that communications will need to be tempered for each site. New Yorkers, for example, are going to have a different state of mind than employees in areas where cases haven’t been as high. Tailor your response guidelines and workplace modifications to each city, county, and state to match the realities of their situations.

Managers should also be empowered to both receive and relay concerns from the frontlines. In a March Gallup poll, only 54% of employees felt strongly “that their supervisor keeps them informed about what is going on in the organization.” Managers are in the best position to understand individual concerns, as well as judge team morale. They know which roles can be done remotely, those unique to the office, and what technology solutions both groups will need.

End of crammed offices

Companies across every industry have long been reducing the square footage allocated for individual workstations. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, was once famous for adopting an open-office concept in a government building. Dubbed the Bullpen, employees were stationed at small desks configured in tight rows. But the practice of working shoulder-to-shoulder is—at least for the time being—a big no-no.

Business owners should determine if hoteling, hot desks, and benching can accommodate on-site workers under social-distancing rules. Even if you currently offer reservable desks, employees might be worried about who else sat there and for how long. Plus, there’s now a question of adding daily janitorial services to sanitize desks and other work surfaces.

One solution to alleviate overcrowding and improve cleaning efficiency is to implement A/B days. The first step is to determine where people normally sit, then calculate capacity based on distancing guidelines. Because social distancing significantly alters capacity, space planning software can show how to place people at safe intervals.

Remodel or renegotiate

Now, step forward 18 months. Theoretically, you should feel comfortable making permanent decisions about workplace strategies. We’ll likely have more clarity on a “new normal” and how that impacts workplace operations. Is social distancing still needed? If not, should you abandon hot desks for more permanent workstations? Can you design for capacity or is distancing required?

Changing the physical workplace is an expensive endeavor;it be done easily or quickly. Companies need to consider how long social distancing might last before committing to layout changes that require a remodel. It’s worth remembering that a construction project often depreciates over the length of the lease. If your lease expires in 10 years, 18 months is not that long to wait for a renovation.

The coronavirus pandemic has made companies even more cautious of committing to decades-long leases and costly buildouts. As businesses inevitably shutter during this period, turnkey office space at below-market rates is more readily available. It may be prudent to evaluate these options and take the opportunity to negotiate more flexible terms for your existing lease.

Look to the future

The end of the COVID-19 story is unclear; we have no way of knowing where each of us will be after this saga. But the silver lining for businesses is an opportunity to recalibrate. When everything has changed, it’s wise to pause and take a fresh look at the how’s and why’s of doing business.

Companies no longer have the luxury of holding onto the mantra of “We have always done it this way, so that’s the way we should do it.” That’s putting your head in the sand. Don’t ignore the facts that business has changed. Instead, rise to the challenge, throw out the old rule books, and get laser-sharp about our workplace goals.

Keep Reading: COVID-19 Wokplace Management Resources