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The great expectations of returning to the office


Great workplaces are about more than just work. While they’ve always been about people working together toward common goals, today’s employees expect health and wellness to be built into the offices and buildings where they spend time. Whether that’s one, two, or five days a week, the pandemic has made it clear that if employees are coming back to the office, it must be to a place they enjoy.

This Gensler study, Germany Workplace Survey 2019, revealed that even before the pandemic, workers’ desire for healthy workplaces was not being met. Fast forward to today, and the global health crisis heightened awareness of building wellness, and its impact on building occupants. A recent survey by HarrisX revealed that 61% of building managers plan to add health and wellness services to their properties, with 86% reporting that the safety, health and well-being of employees is the highest priority in their return-to-office strategy.

Now that employees and employers have made health and well-being a priority, building owners and managers are challenged by updates that motivate healthy behaviors, and support a sense of overall well-being. Among these updates and upgrades are ensuring cleaner, non-toxic air, melding outdoor spaces with indoor spaces, allowing for more natural light, more greenery everywhere, and a breath of nature. Research continues to show that when we connect with nature, our overall health and emotional health is improved.

Across the globe, workers have experienced working from home, which mostly provides easier access to the outdoors. Just the ability to take a break and go outside has enormous benefits to our health and mental state. To replicate that experience, employers must work with building managers on new and creative solutions that replicate the lifestyle of working remotely.

Gensler also found that great offices are employees’ preferred place to work. Their research discovered that offices need to be designed to support the way employees today want to work. For a return-to-office plan to be successful, building owners and managers must work together to evolve these spaces into great places to work; getting occupant input is essential. Smart property managers will take this opportunity to redefine their office space into environments that motivate and empower workers to achieve at the highest level, both individually and collaboratively.

What changes are we seeing in office space?

Behaviors have changed, and there is no return to “normal,” whatever that is. Our world has been permanently altered, and our success will depend on how we embrace our new realities and face the challenges ahead. For property managers who manage office space, living with the virus will probably require the following:

Lots of cleaning and disinfecting. While we know now that the virus is transmitted by air and not by surfaces, cleaning and disinfecting helps. And not just for protection from COVID-19, but for other pathogens, known and unknown. Because even though we’re learning to live with the virus, there’s probably another one right around the corner. How To Clean and Disinfect Your Office Space provides some useful tips on keeping your office space clean and pathogen-free.

Employing touchless technologies. Arguably the most obvious difference we’ve seen in many public places since the beginning of the pandemic is the wild growth of touchless technologies. Buildings today have converted many things to touchless options including:

  • Entryways and exits
  • Elevators
  • Doors
  • Bathrooms

Not only do these improvements decrease the risk of spreading COVID, they also have a profound impact on our sense of health and safety.

A good example of a major Chicago-based employer applying touchless improvements to their office space is Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS). Before the pandemic, their office building saw 5,000 people come through its turnstiles each day. With COVID, that number dropped to about 50. Even so, BCBS management took action to make the building safer by installing temperature-reading scanners and touchless card access to the building.

Updating the ventilationThe New York Times published a visualization titled “What Happens to Viral Particles on the Subway,” that illustrates and explains how pathogens drift through the air in a subway car, and why mask-wearing and social distancing are essential in public places. But good ventilation is the key to reducing the risk of virus exposure. Open the windows, don’t be afraid to bring the outdoors inside, and install better filters for your HVAC systems. Nobody wants to breathe nasty air all day.

Providing flexible work options. Honestly, remote work is nothing new. Some people were working remotely even before the dawn of the internet. By 1995, working from home was a fairly common practice at large employers like insurance companies and banks. So why is it such a big deal today? It’s not. And now that so many people have been working from home for such a long time, they got used to it.

Some people are more productive at home, especially if their work is mostly solitary and focused. And others enjoy coming into the office. The happy medium is a mix – some days in and some days at home. To make that work, office design will need to accommodate both, with more shared spaces, safe spaces, smaller conference rooms, and technology that makes the transition from home to office seamless.

Living with COVID

We are in no way out of the woods with COVID. And we may never be. As of November 19, 2021, the CDC is reporting a 7-day moving average of 88,482 new cases every day in the United States. With the Omicron variant emerging, no one can yet determine how it will impact public health. After all this time, we want our lives back, and part of that means returning to the office, with new rules, new expectations, and a new way of working. We should be grateful for that, since, as we already knew before the lockdown, there always was a lot of room for improvement.