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Workplace Thought Leadership

Employer Liability & COVID-19: No Clear-Cut Case

By Sean K. Palmer
Associate General Counsel
SpaceIQ & Archibus + Serraview

The financial business impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is undeniable. Reports show that more than 100,000 U.S. small businesses have shuttered their doors for good, despite the $700 billion in stimulus funds from the federal government. Companies who have survived are anxiously working to get employees back to work as safely as possible.

Back-to-work initiatives beget an important question: If an employee returns to work, and contracts COVID-19 in the workplace, is the employer legally liable? The short answer is…it depends. The long answer is much more complicated.

Because COVID-19 is new there is no case law with regards to the virus that shows explicit employer liability if an employee becomes ill at the office. There is the argument that it is the same as getting the flu from a coworker. Would you sue your employer for that? Probably not. However, COVID-19 is not the flu, and employees expect their companies to do everything possible to protect them from this deadly disease.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, employers have a duty to “furnish to each of his employees a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” To prove liability, employees must show their employer breached that duty and that the breach is the proximate cause of their illness. In layman’s terms, the employee must show that he/she became sick because of what the employer did or did not do.

One of the challenges to an employee trying to prove COVID-19 liability is meeting the “free from recognized hazards” portion of that clause. Mitigating the danger of an employee tripping on an edge of exposed carpet is easy; tack it down and the problem is then solved. Coronavirus, however, does not present itself so simply. Several studies show up to 80% of infected people are asymptomatic or exhibit mild symptoms. How does an employer have a duty to eradicate the “recognized hazards” of COVID-19 when it can’t see them?

A second issue is that proximate cause with respect to an airborne virus is very tricky. “Certainly, everything an employer can do to mitigate the risk to their employees increases the likelihood of defending a claim if someone contracts COVID-19 in the workplace,” said John Hutchins, a partner with BakerHostetler, a national  law firm with 1,000 attorneys and 17 offices in the U.S. “It may be difficult for employees to hold their company liable for a coronavirus infection because they’d have to prove they contracted it in the office. That can be difficult in a pandemic. The more an employer does to reduce the chances that an employeeI could contract the disease in the office, the better argument it has to successfully argue that it’s just as likely that the employee contracted it at the grocery store.”

Hutchins believes employers should ask whether they really need to ask employees to come back. “An employer whose employees are productive when working from home should ask, “Why are we asking our employees to come back to work? I’m perfectly safe working at home and have 100% control over my own environment. If my employer wants me to come to an environment where I don’t have 100% control of my own health, they should have a clearly articulated reason

Covid-19, by definition, is novel. Thus, there are no easily identifiable standards or analogous case law on whether employers should or shouldn’t ask workers to return to the office, Hutchins said. Safety measures, such as pre-entry health screenings, social distancing, and one-way walkways, social distancing, mandatory mask policies, are key to reducing employer liability. More importantly, employers should carefully monitor employee health, immediately send anyone exhibiting COVID-19 home, and immediately begin contact tracing, when possible.

“At that point, it’s critical to not only send the impacted employee home, but also everyone he or she had contact with,” he added. “Communicate with all employees that the area in which the employee worked is being disinfected and anywhere they may have traveled in the office. Proactive response is the best way to mitigate liability. But, certainly, it’s no guarantee. Every situation is fact-specific. There are far too many variables to be able to advise any particular employer that they have done everything necessary to avoid potential liability.”

For employees with health conditions or special circumstances, employers should consider work-from-home options, that allow work to continue, without showing favoritism. Further, employers should consider how they can empower their employers to take control of their own willingness to take risks that are inherent with the coronavirus return-to-the-workplace quandary. “Employers should consider a policy where they say, “If you’re not comfortable with the health risks of returning to the office, then you don’t have to come,” Hutchins said.

Predicting employer liability, if a person contracts COVID-19 in the workplace, is impossible. There will be myriad factors unique to each claim and the courts must examine every one on a case-by-case basis. Hutchins believes litigation over these issues is likely because there will always be plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ lawyers. However, the burden of proof will rest on the plaintiffs to prove that the employer breached its duty, and as a proximate cause of that breach, the employee contracted the virus.

“The best we can say right now is if an employee contracts COVID-19 at work, their employer might be liable,” he said. “Each state will handle cases differently, with varying state laws impacting what proof required for placing blame. For instance, many states have comparative negligence statutes now, so a jury has to sort out how much of the blame rests with each party to the lawsuit. In a lawsuit alleging, “You forced me to come back to work and I got sick,” the variables that a jury would need to consider are almost limitless. It’s too early to know how all of this will shake out, which is why preventive measures in the workplace is a smarter option than scrambling to show, in hindsight, you did everything possible to protect your employees.”

Keep reading: COVID-19 and Employee Fear on Returning to the Workplace

About John Hutchins

John Hutchins is a veteran trial and technology lawyer with broad experience encompassing complex commercial litigation and trial work, privacy and data security matters, and compliance and strategic counseling on technology matters and transactions. While his nearly 30 years of litigation experience runs the gamut in subject matter — from software and eminent domain, to vintage race cars and death penalty habeas corpus — he has particular experience in matters involving privacy and data security, technology, intellectual property, government procurement, restrictive covenants and breach of fiduciary duty. He has tried numerous cases to jury verdict in state and federal courts, as well as bench trials, arbitrations, administrative and other evidentiary proceedings.

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Back-to-Work Planning & Employee Sentiment

By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
SpaceIQ

Going to the office has drastically changed, and that makes workplace policy and facility management more complex. While you’re implementing new safety measures such as social distancing, mask wearing, and disinfecting, don’t forget to include employee sentiment as part of your back-to-work plan.

Employee sentiment matters because this is also a stressful time for employees, and you need to establish trust as they return to work. Generally speaking, stress negatively affects physical and mental health, turnover and absenteeism rates, productivity and motivation, morale and complaints, and even on-site accidents. The world is dealing with collective trauma, and your back-to-work plans can exacerbate or diminish those challenges.

Employees understand that the coronavirus is dangerous. They may be familiar with well-documented cases of workplace infection and feel vulnerable to catching the virus or spreading it to others. They may worry that they are putting their lives on the line to come to work. Listen to their concerns and ideas and take them into consideration when you make your back-to-work plans. When you ask them to risk coming into the office, your actions should reassure your employees that you’re worthy of their trust and that you’re working to reduce that risk.

Employee Sentiment Matters

Your hard work and good intentions for reentry planning won’t mean much if those plans don’t match employee needs. In a recent Future Workplace survey, employee experience ranked first among 50% of HR and business leaders as their top initiative for 2020. Since a high percentage of employees are anxious about returning to work, employers can’t afford to ignore employee sentiment.

Most employees feel job-related stress at least some of the time. When you add in COVID-19-related challenges, the stress may be difficult to manage. Although you may think you are doing an excellent job following CDC guidelines or even going beyond recommendations, that may not be enough for some employees, especially those with health concerns or extra COVID-19-related responsibilities.

Unlike momentary stress such as a looming deadline or an important presentation, COVID-19 stress is chronic, unrelenting, and can directly impact the workplace. It’s safe to assume your employees will be stressed at least some of the time. They may experience physical and emotional symptoms of their stress.

Although most remote workers continue to be productive at home, three factors (in addition to safety and security) influence well-being and work effectiveness: trusting relationships, social cohesion, and individual effectiveness. Employees who feel they can share their experiences and concerns without repercussions will feel safer in the workplace, and this can positively impact performance.  It’s not just about creating a physically safe working environment. You also need to create an emotionally safe workplace.

A cookie-cutter approach won’t suit everyone’s needs. If you listen to your employees and respond appropriately, they will appreciate your efforts. They will remember that you cared about them and their needs during a crisis, which can earn you employee loyalty and trust for years to come.

Gauging Employee Sentiment

You can create both formal and informal listening opportunities. The easiest way to get a lot of information quickly is to use workplace reentry surveys. Surveys make it easy for employees to respond quickly and to do so at their own convenience.

Start by gathering feedback about four main areas:

  • Physical Workplace: social distancing, mask wearing and enforcement, cleaning/hygiene, health screenings and contact tracing, ventilation
  • Remote Working: IT support, software/hardware issues, communication, manager oversight, performance and expectations
  • Work-Life Balance: personal health concerns, child care, homeschooling, elder care, household unemployment/illness, anxiety/depression, trust in management
  • HR Policies: compensation, access to FFRCA funds, sick leave, bereavement leave, vacation days, health insurance (including contract/part-time workers)

It’s critical to assess what employees know and how they feel. Do they understand your policies? Are they aware of your efforts to promote safety? Are they doing well emotionally? Do they feel safe confiding their concerns? Doing so will allow you to determine if you have been communicating well and whether your employees believe your workplace is a physically and emotionally safe place to work.

Listen to Your Employees

Even when you implement safety measures, it may not be enough for all your employees to feel safe. This holds true nationally, where one survey shows that fewer than half of employees say safety measures like social distancing will make them feel more comfortable returning to work.

Whether you’re gathering data from surveys or personal interviews, communication will help employees learn more about their individual circumstances, some of which may affect work. An employee living with medically fragile people, for example, may be more cautious than others. A parent with elementary-aged children may appreciate flexible hours.

Survey data can provide valuable insight. You can use sample employee sentiment surveys or create your own using survey software or Google forms.

You may also want to interview your employees individually and institute an open-door policy. Listening closely can help you understand your employees’ needs and circumstances. Interviews can provide qualitative data that surveys miss and allow you to ask follow-up questions. Through your actions, you can show your empathy and help your employees trust that you care about them.

Communicate Early and Often

In a rapidly changing environment, emotions are strong. Uncertainty and change are hotbeds for anxiety, stress, and depression. Keep your employees informed of situations both inside and outside the workplace to provide reassurance. Even if it’s bad news, employees will respond better to the truth, especially when it’s delivered early. They will grow to trust you as a source of accurate information, and employees will appreciate extra planning time when you give them advance notice of changes.

Don’t forget employee  mental health. Help them recognize the signs of stress and provide resources for mental health aids and intervention. Inform them about your workplace’s mental health benefits and hotlines. Consider virtual socializing opportunities to help employees connect with each other. Refer employees to mental health apps that can help manage anxiety. Cultivate a safe place for employees to share their concerns.

Above all, keep the lines of communication open. It’s particularly important for remote employees to maintain a strong connection with the office. Whether you use email, task management software, apps, and/or other tools, maintain IT support and use the same tools consistently so that you and your employees can respond quickly if a crisis arises.

Sometimes, bad news is inevitable. Your decisions may be unpopular. Even when you try to be as flexible as possible, some situations are beyond your control. When you communicate your decision-making process, show that you’ve taken employee concerns into consideration. Modeling honesty and transparency will help your employees do the same with you, and this will help you create a better employee experience.

The COVID-19 situation is difficult for everyone at the office. When you’re planning workplace reentry, risk and uncertainty can create high levels of anxiety in an already stressful situation. If you take the time to listen to employees, gauging employee sentiment will help you create an effective, responsive back-to-work plan, and build a higher level of communication and trust.

Keep reading: 10 Tips for a Safe Return to the Workplace

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Work From Home: Not a Forever Option

By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
SpaceIQ

As articles continue to show that company after company believes it is a good idea to embrace employees working 100% remote, an uncomfortable thought sinks in. What if SpaceIQ followed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s vow to let his employees work from home “forever?”

There are organizations like Gitlab that have been successful in 100% remote work. However, it’s a tech company and employees knew what they were getting into when they signed on. I doubt healthcare, banking, or manufacturing could ever move to 100% work from home (WFH). But what about a SaaS company like SpaceIQ, or its owner ArchibusSerraview?

I am a proponent of remote working to some degree because it allows you to source the best talent and, ultimately, create a workforce culture that supports flexibility. Before COVID-19, employees weren’t pushing for 100% remote working. We wanted flexibility in our work schedules and accommodation from our employers. There are some of us who’d like to start later in the day because “productivity” and “morning” aren’t compatible. And what about parents who need to drop kids off at school after the start of “normal” work hours? The list goes on: put in a day’s work even when we’re sick; save a PTO day for a real vacation, not watching a plumber fix the water heater.

We’re asking for freedom to work when we want, how it is best for our productivity, and where we can get the job done while supporting our teams.

There are many disadvantages to 100% WFH—excluding mandated remote work due to COVID-19. Here are 10 reasons to think “flexibility” instead of “entirely” when it comes to WFH.

  1. Home Not-So-Sweet Home. As commercial real estate becomes more expensive, residential real estate is following suit. Some people buy just enough home to accommodate their families. Outside of that, they may not desire more space. So, when COVID-19 forced the world to shelter in place, many of us were unprepared to do so. We jimmy rigged ironing boards into makeshift standing desks. Many of us don’t have a spare bedroom for private work areas or endless Zoom or Teams calls.
  2. Did the Second Hand Move Backward? Do you know what day it is? What time did you start working? How many times did neighbor Fred walk his dog by your house this week? If you’re anything like me, I want a change of scenery from my home. Prior to COVID-19, coworking spaces were taking off because people want to work in environments that nurture creativity and collaboration. With 100% WFH, the world seems to stop spinning. Even Aristotle understood the importance of work structure: “Time is the measure of change.”
  3. I Miss the Bean Bags. Many newer workplaces were designed for productivity. Companies created activity-based workspaces that cater to how employees of all shapes and sizes work their best. WFH hinders spontaneous, active brainstorming or collaboration. Try doing a white boarding session over video conferencing—easier said than done.
  4. My Monitor is Smoking. Home office equipment wasn’t meant for the day-to-day grind of a busy workplace. How many of us have lightning-fast laser printers for those long contracts you just can’t read on a computer screen? Not me. And let’s not forget business vs. personal internet connections. How many times did your lousy connection speed end a meeting in the middle of an important discussion? people dropped off a meeting because of your internet? (Hand raise!)
  5. Remember the Titans! Whether we want to admit it or not, some employees perform better in the office with a coach guiding them to success.
  6. Death By Meeting. More than 100% of my working day is spent in meetings. You read that right. I have to work longer to fit in more meetings. Prior to 100% WFH, I spent about two-thirds of my working day in meetings. Those five-minute discussions that quickly solved an issue are now full-fledged meetings. I sometimes feel like Doctor Who—jumping from one meeting to the next. WFH requires more communication because we feel obligated to spend time with our teams and colleagues because we don’t see them every day in the office.
  7. We ARE Family! Let’s face it, I think we all miss socializing personally and professionally. COVID-19 and working remotely has completely killed that. I miss my colleagues at work and hearing about their weekends or a funny joke. When SpaceIQ was acquired, it was difficult to feel a sense of solidarity amongst the team because we weren’t in one place together and connected. Now, try to virtually build working relationships with new bosses and coworkers. You need to plan time into your meetings for pleasantry and small talk—more so now than when you were together in the office.
  8. Can You Hear Me Now? Communication was tough enough when people were in the office, in the same room. Now, we “talk” via Zoom and Teams, voice calls, or through email. It takes many more written words to clearly communicate than it does to have a simple, in-person conversation.
  9. Kickstart My Brain. There are certain personalities that feed off other people’s energy to jumpstart their creativity. Who hasn’t relished in sitting down with your team and brainstorming the next great offering? Yes, we communicate more in our 100% WFH world, but there’s a lot to be said for congregating in front of white board and free-flowing ideas to solve the latest problem. In-person creativity sessions demand our full attention. Admit it, you multitask on video calls.
  10. Mmmm…Doughnuts! OK, this isn’t true for all companies, but I work in tech. It’s common to have snacks and, on occasion, some meals provided at no cost. They call that a perk! I chose to work for you not just because I liked the job, the company, and the pay, but because you have provided me a place to work where I feel I can be productive and get fed. Sounds weird, but when you’re pulling 10-hour, stressful days getting a product release out on deadline, those Hot Pockets and chocolate-covered almonds may be all there is for dinner.

To WFH or Not to WFH…

Remote working is not going anywhere. There will always be a desire to work from different locations. However, the whole 100% WFH situation doesn’t sound appealing…and probably by a lot more people than you’d think. My guess is that if polled, employees would like the option to work from home but also to come into the office when needed.

Give me the choice and I’ll opt for a mix of WFH and time in the workplace. And that’s the key: provide employees with a choice. Work from home forever isn’t for everyone. Maybe we can dub it WFHWIRFM…work from home when it’s right for me.

Keep reading: 8 Apps for Remote Workers Productivity and Success

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Workplace Thought Leadership

The Next Normal in a Post-Pandemic Workspace

By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
SpaceIQ

Whether your office has already partially returned to work or you’re planning a workplace reentry, one thing is certain—things may never be the same. Safe facility management during an unprecedented pandemic requires a high level of planning and precaution. The measures you implement should increase employee productivity, promote workplace trust, and most importantly, keep employees and customers safe.

Rule and Regulation Compliance

It’s not always easy to keep up with new regulations, especially with constantly changing guidelines. Regardless, the first priority is employee safety. In most nations, employers are encouraged to provide a safe working environment. Physical safety should be a constant for all employees, but some may tolerate risk better than others. It’s wise to consider your most vulnerable employees when creating a return-to-work plan, but determine strategies with everyone in mind.

Second, keep employees informed of changes and guidelines. Assign staff to monitor local conditions and guidelines, then share updates on a consistent schedule. Keep a global perspective and adjust plans as needed to comply with local requirements.

Third, align business priorities with global realities. Inspect your building for potential hazards and determine remediation costs. Be willing to remodel, reconfigure, or rearrange everything including work schedules, walls, and seating arrangements.

Masking, Sanitation, and Social Distancing

Most official guidelines center on three principles—masking, sanitation, and social distancing. Depending on your industry, some guidelines may present more of a challenge than others. Restrictions will change as the coronavirus threat diminishes or increases, so keep long-term needs in mind when investing in safety equipment.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements can vary depending on role. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to PPE. Some employees may not be able to wear masks. Others may need to avoid the workplace altogether, such as employees with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

Employees want clean workplaces, even more so now under COVID-19. Make sanitation a priority by setting up hygiene stations with hand sanitizer, soap, gloves, and disinfecting wipes. The typical weekly office cleanings may not be enough. Consider hiring extra cleaning staff to more frequently clean bathrooms, break areas, and shared spaces like conference rooms and lounges.

PPE isn’t limited to individual employees. Plexiglass shields provide an additional layer of protection around pinch points where social distancing may be a challenge, such as reception areas, entrances and exits, and payment areas. Posted policies and directional signage are great visual reminders for customers and employees to abide by your workplace precautions.

Other measures such as UV lights and thermal scanners are options for combatting COVID-19, but should be part of an overall workplace health and safety strategy. It’s wise to check with locally, regionally, and country-specific requirements to determine what’s feasible for your team to manage.

Technology and Real Estate Optimization

For most workplaces, safety decisions center around official guidelines. Maintaining six feet of distance helps protect people from breathing in infected air particles. However, this is easier said than done for many businesses.

Social distance guidelines vary by country and region. In the U.S., 6 feet is the standard; the World Health Organization recommends 1 meter. Social distancing may reduce workplace capacity, depending on your current seating configuration, plan density, desk sharing, and other factors. The potential for space loss raises some interesting options:

  • Should some individuals work remotely forever? Can we stagger work schedules? Do we need to let some staff go?
  • Should we purchase or rent additional office space or retrofit the space we have? Should we consider moving? Should we renegotiate the terms of our lease?
  • How can we prepare our workplace for future emergencies?

During the pandemic, many business leaders are leveraging real estate planning software to visualize coronavirus-related changes to seating arrangements, staff schedules, and office remodeling before committing time and money to wholesale changes. For example, hoteling software helps maximize seating efficiency using dynamic data such as HR information and floor maps.

Business owners can require that employees reserve a hotel desk prior to coming to work and show the reservation before they’re allowed to enter. After someone uses the hotel desk, facility management can be notified that the area must be cleaned and sanitized before another reservation can be made.

The Next Normal is Now

Reopening your workplace can be difficult. Regulations are constantly changing and there’s no saying when COVID-19 will ease. The post-pandemic “next normal” requires flexibility and adaptability. Desks, rooms, and entire floors may not function the same way. Previous policies for remote work, sick leave, and work schedules may need to be reevaluated in the new work environment.

You can’t foresee every situation, but you can be flexible in establishing your new normal. Employees will appreciate your efforts as they return to their former—though newly arranged—workspaces.

Learn how SpaceIQ can help you effectively manage your workplace reentry.

Keep Reading: COVID-19 Workplace Resources

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Adjusting Workplace Strategies for a Post-COVID Future

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

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Tech Determinism Yields to User Determinism

By Nai Kanell
Vice President of Marketing
SpaceIQ

Technology has long been a driving force in business. From personal computers and fax machines to the internet and smart devices, companies are continually evolving thanks to the latest technological advancements.

This begs the question: How much is technology evolution influenced by its creators vs. its users?

The answer is both, actually. Our society, and by extension our workplaces, are shaped by the technology we use every day. But user expectations are also pushing tech companies to continually raise the bar. Technological evolution is now a two-way street where companies and end users are in constant dialogue.

Technological Determinism Has a Weak Spot

We experience technological determinism every day. A concept derived from theorists in the 19th century, the idea posits that technology shapes every element of society. The effect of technology is so pervasive, in fact, that it influences everything from values to relationships. Because the workplace is a microcosm of our larger society, it also experiences the push-and-pull of technological determinism.

Think about how digital technology has changed our professional lives since the turn of the millennium: WiFi, video conferencing, cloud computing, to name just a few. How a global company is managed today is completely different than it was even 10 years ago. The skillset of knowledge workers has also evolved significantly to keep pace with the latest generation of software programs.

Technological determinism can be seen in the model of tech teams as creators and users as adopters. Customers patiently looked to tech providers for the latest products and updates. In the past, even if users reached out with an idea for a new function or improvement, most of the time their feedback would be ignored or take months/years to implement.

But a massive shift has taken place that is challenging the distinction between creators and users. Call it “user determinism,” because customers have become a powerful sphere of influence to demand technological changes. Smart technology companies recognize the value of bringing their customers to the product development table.

This shift resulted in the birth of the “customer success” role around 2010. Back then, companies had customer-service programs, but were missing the “success” part of the equation. Today, it’s critical that tech providers ensure a customer’s implementation goes well and that their needs are fulfilled on an ongoing basis. Customer success professionals are the links between clients and product development. In the end, customers want to feel they are heard and that tech providers take their feedback seriously.

How Users Drive Technological Innovation

How have users become such vocal proponents of innovation? For one, the feedback loop between companies and clients is at the most transparent it’s ever been. Online reviews and social media tags fundamentally alter how users communicate with technology developers. Clients have no compunction about publicly sharing their opinions (positive or negative) about a product for all to see.

Their expectations about a company’s response time have also changed. The days of writing or faxing in a complaint or suggestion are long over. Even waiting 48 hours for an email response is seen as unacceptably slow—people want an immediate answer. A quick reply is now a given, plus it shows that a business values the opinions of its users.

Yet some legacy companies are holding onto the outdated mindset that only tech determinism rules product development. Because they believe they have all the answers to their clients’ needs, they are slow to respond to or act on feedback. When customer comments aren’t prioritized, however, companies stop innovating.

This is at odds with tech-savvy customers. Because they work in dynamic companies experiencing rapid growth, the ability to pivot quickly is paramount. That includes the technology tools they depend on every day for creativity, collaboration, and productivity. These users are not shy, nor should they be, about demanding modifications or updates that are uniquely suited to their needs.

Like most next-gen tech companies, we’re in a constant marathon to bring new value to our customers. We are always looking for ways to innovate and are deliberately positioned to make agile product changes. Part of our philosophy of continuous improvement is integrating customer feedback into our latest offerings.

For example, a San Francisco-based communications company was using our wayfinder kiosks to show employee and resource locations. Company leaders came to us for ways to book a meeting room at the kiosks. They also wanted an employee catalog with workers’ photos and their current locations.

Suggestions from our customers resulted in substantial improvements to our wayfinding platform. And our collaboration continues to this day, with an add-on that allows wayfinding maps kiosks to reflect the direction in which the person using it is facing.

These are examples of user determinism at its best. The pressure to innovate comes from both internal vision and external feedback—not for just one company, but for every customer looking for ways to maximize every square foot of their workplace. The close ties between technology providers and their clients, via customer success teams or other communication channels, make for more innovative solutions that meet business needs and drive greater workplace productivity.

Keep reading: How Agile is Your Real Estate?

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Fun Offices and Workplace Productivity

By Reagan Nickl
Enterprise Customer Success Senior Manager
SpaceIQ

Ping-pong, foosball, and hammocks—these are just a few of the fun amenities that companies are providing to employees. Can an employee have fun at work while staying productive? Are these features just a cool trend or do they have a measurable impact on productivity? These interactive elements can improve talent retention and employee morale, but only if they align with business values.

The Workplace as a Social Hub

Silicon Valley was one of the first sectors to embrace the open office. It has the dual advantage of promoting collaboration while reducing real estate costs. It seemed like a smart move to place twice as many people in an open floor than individual cubicles. But many companies have found that the success of an open layout depends entirely on their workplace culture.

It’s the same way with “fun” workplaces. The intention is to transform the office into a place where employees can socialize. I’ve seen everything from arcade tables and gaming consoles to movie theaters with real popcorn. Some organizations encourage people to hop on scooters as a novel way to get to meetings. I even know a company that has a library with a gas fireplace.

But is a big slide really the right choice for your company? These features aren’t always all fun and games. For starters, you need a certain amount of available space. And then there’s your workplace culture, which may not give employees the freedom to let go of their professional decorum.

Plus, a fun amenity always runs the risk of turning into a distraction. For example, a bean bag toss won’t make a difference if employees don’t feel like they have permission to use it. That’s because a fun workplace isn’t the result of your amenities—it’s the atmosphere you create around them.

If one fun amenity doesn’t fit your workplace culture, there may be others that do. A lobby slide may not fit your organization, but there are myriad ways to turn your workplace into a strategic advantage.

Four Rules for Fun Workplaces

Your workplace is one of the most strategic parts of your organization. If you want to offer amenities that lighten the mood, you have to be intentional. Here are four do’s and don’ts that will help create a space with an outgoing vibe.

1) Follow the Data

The concept of “fun” should come from employees, not leadership. That means understanding the ins and outs of their workflow. You need to establish where there are friction points to determine if an amenity can ease the tension.

Take a look at how employees use conference rooms, kitchens, and individual desks. What percent of meetings result in employees traveling between floors? How many people use their assigned workstation less than 20% of the time and how many are glued to it all day? You need a foundation of data before you can optimize your workplace.

2) Get Broad Support

Sometimes an amenity will only appeal to a niche part of your employee base. Maybe your salespeople love taking calls from a hammock but no one else gives them a second thought. Or the accounting department enjoys table tennis to build camaraderie but no other team feels the same way.

An effective amenity is one that has mass appeal. For instance, say your data shows that your space and workplace teams have more than 100 meetings a week. These two groups also enjoy gaming to burn off steam and create connections. You can move these employees into a space with shared amenities, effectively creating a zone that supports both their work and social habits.

3) Don’t Go for Cool

A workplace trend has a shelf life of five years, and that’s a generous estimate. In that time, your whole business model might change, not to mention your layout needs. It’s best to be restrained when it comes to adopting the latest and greatest.

Think about your core business identity instead. Your workplace amenities need to be a reflection of your company. It’s a lot like buying clothes—you want to have a distinct style rather than only wearing what’s in style. If your business is impulsive about hopping from trend to trend, you’ll send mixed messages to employees about your organization’s personality.

4) Measure ROI

How do you quantify an on-site escape room? You first establish the outcome you wish to see and then trace it back to ROI. Those goals could be anything from productivity, creativity, or collaboration to wellness scores or satisfaction ratings.

For example, if you want a pool table to promote relaxation, look at your turnover rates. Or if you added a putt-putt course to encourage recruiters to share their knowledge, review their commissions.

But don’t hold onto your ROI assumptions too tightly. You don’t want to overlook another metric that could show success in a different light. For example, maybe the sales team isn’t closing more deals but their retention has improved. Or maybe your overall turnover rate hasn’t changed but new hire turnover has decreased.

Your workplace is a driving factor for employee hiring and retention. A fun office only works if it produces results. If the office design doesn’t impact behavior in a positive way, all you’ve done is wasted real estate and capital. Focus on improvements that will truly strengthen morale and productivity.

Keep reading: Increase workplace productivity by relying on your senses.

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Great Employee Seating

By Laura Woodard
Real Estate Executive (Ret.)
Google

Employee conflict is inevitable in the workplace. There’s always a touch of drama wherever humans congregate. But an overlooked source of workplace tension could be your seating strategy. Your layout can either foster team togetherness or breed frustration. An effective way to minimize discord is to measure space usage and optimize your chosen configuration with a workplace management platform.

Design Influences Behavior (and Stress Levels!)

Human beings are influenced by their surroundings. It’s why some employees thrive in exuberant environments while others flourish in tranquil ones. Finding the right balance between these workstyles, however, is a serious challenge. One type of workplace layout might work wonders for one group but create serious dissatisfaction for another.

Just look at the open office. Removing cubicles and bringing down walls is a great way to combat isolation and encourage collaboration. But what if employees feel compelled to wear headphones to block noise? Your layout is now a source of stress. All that lost momentum, productivity, and concentration will eventually affect your bottom line.

I’ve seen this first hand when a team of software engineers was placed across from a group of recruiters. The only thing separating these two departments were very low cubicle walls. The recruiters wanted a bullpen-style environment on their side because they wanted the noise and the “buzz” from being on the phone all day—it helped their team keep up the high energy needed for their work. But the software engineers couldn’t escape the raucous atmosphere. It was so bad, one of the software engineers had memorized a recruiter’s pitch!

Neighborhoods are another popular workplace environment because teams or departments can be grouped together with supporting amenities. This is really beneficial, for example, if you have an accounting department that works well in a quiet open floor surrounded by a handful of small conference rooms. Everyone has access to the right combination of resources: quiet areas, proximity to colleagues, and huddle spaces.

However, the neighborhood concept can cause discord if it doesn’t fulfill a team’s needs. If an agile team is placed in an area with limited conference rooms, its ability to have scrum meetings is hampered. Employees can then become exasperated when they have to constantly search for a free conference room or a private place for a phone call.

What’s more, all of this time spent hunting for the right work environment comes at a cost. According to a 2018 Steelcase Workplace Survey, 40% of workers waste up to 30 minutes a day looking for a place to collaborate. And the 2017 Office Workplace Survey 2017 by Senion found that “39% of office workers spend as much as 60 minutes every week searching for available desks, conference rooms, or colleagues.”

In all of these examples, space shortages are the primary source of workplace conflict.  When everyone is vying for the same conference rooms, quiet zones, or privacy spaces, congestion is bound to occur. How can employees do their best if they don’t have the right work environment?

Create a Flexibility Layout

It would be fantastic if there was a universal seating strategy that worked for all companies, across all industries, but that’s simply not realistic. Creating a flexible workplace environment starts with digging deep and assessing what your employees truly need. When it comes to space programming, employees actually know best. That requires talking to them, not just their managers.

Because employees are the ones in the proverbial trenches, they are the first to experience friction. It’s important to understand the nuances of their workflow in a given day or week. How many hours are they in meetings versus doing individual work? How many times do they have a spontaneous meeting but can’t find space to collaborate? Is noise welcomed in the background or seen as a major disruption?

Then pair these observations with space usage data—especially for conference rooms. Establish how many meetings were booked, but also how many actually took place. See if you can ascertain if the meetings went over or under the allotted time. It could also be helpful to determine how many times a conference room was booked on the fly rather than in advance.

Once you establish programming patterns, space planning technologies are your friend. A space planning tool allows employees to view available conference rooms and book them with ease. Some software includes a floor plan that shows the proximity of a conference room to all attendees, which is crucial for a workplace that is spread across several floors or an entire campus.

For real estate or human resource managers, a workplace management platform also provides the ability to digitally manipulate layouts. You can run scenarios that forecast the impact of moving individuals or entire departments to a new location. Dynamic planning allows you to evaluate where you have free space and if it will support a team’s workflow.

At the end of the day, flexible seating strategies help diffuse workplace conflict. Everyone can breathe a little easier when they have the right resources to do their work efficiently and effectively. A productive and happy workforce is just a new layout away.

Keep reading: 10 factors shaping office space planning guidelines.

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Digital Twins

By Noam Livnat
Chief Product & Innovation Officer
SpaceIQ

Is your company using a digital twin to manage your workplace? While electronic representations of real-world objects have been around for decades, businesses are now exploring novel ways to harness this technology and combine it with business processes, driving efficiencies and data-driven decision making . Because a digital twin is composed of data layers, the latest innovation is to add a “personnel layer.”

A digital twin opens this virtual representation to a new class of workplace management professionals: human resources, space planners, and employee experience managers. A dynamic digital twin of your workplace will yield actionable data that affects everything from space planning and move coordination to lease negotiations and employee management.

The DNA of a Digital Twin

Simply put, digital twins provide electronic means to represent physical items. They can be simple and static as a two-dimensional CAD file of your floor plan. They can also be more complex, such as a cloud-based application that dynamically represents your global real estate portfolio, from the location of each building down to the position of every security camera or defibrillator.

But without additional data to provide context and without supporting business processes, a digital twin is just a visual tool. With detailed layers of shared data, however, a digital twin enhances an organization’s ability to operate efficiently and make smart  decisions.

Consider a common object like a coffee maker. The machine comes with a printed manual that typically includes a cutaway diagram and basic instructions. But this information is static and analog—it can’t be easily updated, searched, or shared with multiple users. It also can’t be merged with related data sets, like your monthly coffee expenditure.

Now imagine a digital twin of the coffee maker. This virtual model captures the smallest details of its construction, allowing you to easily troubleshoot errors. The digital twin also contains a wealth of usage and maintenance data, all of which helps you to maximize lifecycle costs.

This is just a taste of what a digital twin can do. What if you could document that the coffee maker is located in your main kitchen, was last serviced two months ago, brews an average of four gallons a day, and is one of three other machines at this office? The data contained in this digital snapshot radically alters how you can maintain this single asset. These powerful insights can now be applied to an entire building or portfolio to proactively manage workplace expenses.

Digital Twins and Workplace Management

Building owners and property developers are already familiar with CAD (computer-aided design) and BIM (building information modeling). While these tools offer insights into physical property, they are ultimately disconnected from the most important part of your business—employees and their associated real estate costs.

The value of real estate has historically been tied to square footage, but what if it was linked to headcount? What if the question we asked was: “How much does it cost to place one employee in my building? What about 100 employees? Or 250?”

BIM and CAD simply aren’t equipped to answer those questions. They aren’t configured to tell you the number of assigned desks versus hots desks. They do not show that Mia, Jacob, and Alyssa sit in a row of private offices. And you can’t use them to assess the impact of increasing or decreasing your workforce. There’s simply not enough information available to decide whether or not to renew a lease.

But a workplace digital twin with operational management capabilities is an extraordinary opportunity to improve operations, enhance service quality, and transition to fact-based decision making. A digital twin transforms how decisions are made in four key areas:

  1. Space & Asset Management – A digital twin enables you to monitor office occupancy to make sure it remains within your targets: too low and you’re inefficient, too high and you have (literally) no wiggle room. For example, you can create a rule that stipulates floors shouldn’t exceed 90% occupancy. When the headcount reaches the 85% threshold, the digital twin can generate an alert.
  2. Move Management – Paper copies of seating charts are an outdated and clunky method to coordinate office moves and quickly turn into a scribbled mess when multiple departments are involved. But with a digital twin of your workplace, planners can collaborate and provide real-time input instead of exchanging hard-copy drawings and combining the data. You can retrieve an exact count on any floor at a glance. You can then explore different allocation options with a few keystrokes.
  3. Lease Management – Without integrated data, it’s nearly impossible to determine whether your portfolio can support your future business needs. Is it more economical to add employees to a Denver office or expand an existing San Diego location? A standard lease doesn’t tell you that—you can only compare the price per square footage. A digital twin enables you to proactively manage real estate expenses. For example, you could set an alert nine months before a property’s lease ends. This advanced notification creates a window of time to consolidate square footage, change your office density, or terminate the lease.
  4. Employee Management – Managing new hires and existing employees is usually the domain of HR, but what about resignations or terminations? If you only have a tool like BIM or a BMS (business management system), there’s no process in place to indicate when and where a person has been removed.

A digital twin that interfaces with HR software merges siloed data into one platform. Imagine an automatic push when a person’s employment ends that goes to the space manager, facilities department, and security team. Without this kind of automation, it’s a challenge to distribute this critical information to all the necessary contacts.

A digital twin with layers of workplace insights provides a shared picture for key leadership. It automatically merges data from separate systems to help improve processes and support decision making in a context-rich environment. In addition to collaboration, this virtual double can be leveraged to run reports and scenarios. With a digital twin, you can pair staffing forecasts with real estate costs and uncover innovative ways to maximize your operational expenses.

Keep Reading: Digital Twin Software: Maximize Solutions and Benefits