By Amy Rosen - 24th July, 2020
In his CEO Interview Series, Density CEO Andrew Farah has invited industry experts to talk about how to safely navigate the challenges involved in returning to the physical workplace amidst COVID-19. PLASTARC was honored to join the series on May 27th to share approaches to workplace planning, including: how to optimize the current work-from-anywhere experience, how to return to the physical workplace, and how to reconsider future telework and office space usage in order to accommodate a hybrid virtual and physical workforce. The session was recorded and is available for viewing here.
Farah began by asking PLASTARC Founder & Executive Director Melissa Marsh to illustrate how the pandemic has influenced her team's approach to workplace strategy and design. Melissa emphasized that at many levels, our team is continuing to do the same work as before: working with organizations to bring people, culture, and data to real estate and architectural decision-making. She indicated that the biggest change is the audience and their perspective.
Marsh said there is a hunger across organizations for new and innovative strategies to make their workplaces healthy and safe for occupants. Clients who might have previously looked at user experience (UX) as an add-on or a way to attract millennials are seeing a new level of relevance for UX systems and workplace strategies. In some cases, UX systems are being repurposed to serve newly-emerging needs. For instance, organizations that already have room booking systems have a built-in tool for contact tracing and efficiently spreading people out within the office.
“Having a cloud-enabled organization is a resiliency mandate,” Marsh noted. “Whether you’re using coworking to be able to have other sites that people can go to and to have flexibility within your portfolio, or you’re working on developing distributed work strategies due to COVID, every organization needs to have more building resiliency built into their continuity planning and real estate planning strategy. If you don’t have this ‘muscle’ within your organization and you’re not able to turn your physical building ‘on’ or ‘off’, everything is 10 times harder.”
The conversation shifted toward general safety mandates, including cleaning and PPE procurement. Farah said that there are two sides of the safety equation: whether employers and managers can make buildings safe and whether they can convince employees it really is safe to return. Marsh challenged his point by introducing a third element of what she called the ‘Venn Diagram of Safety’: the efficacy of all safety measures will be a matter of human behavior. Through training and workplace culture, employees must feel ownership of new workplace policies if they are to be effective.
Farah and Marsh also touched on the importance of vocabulary. As Marsh pointed out, there is a need to pay close attention to our use of language such that we allow all employees to work on par with one another. Terms like “remote” frame distance between people in potentially negative ways.
Pointing toward the hierarchies of wellness that exist across demographics and location, Marsh stressed the need for decisions to be made locally. Knowledge workers can more easily become distributed workers. As a self-identified ‘urbanite’, Marsh pointed out that this crisis is revealing some of the limitations of the physical environments in cities. For instance, transportation has a large impact on employees’ ability to return. Cities and regions more centered on private transportation are less susceptible to the impacts of person-to-person contact. A long-term effect of this disruption will likely be that second- and third-tier cities, such as Rochester and Ithaca, NY, will become more desirable. Walkability and the capacity for urban infrastructure to support trains and/or light rail will become greater indicators of value.
By then highlighting the responsibilities of the employer regarding ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of their workforce in the office, Marsh shifted the conversation towards the importance of equity in workplace decision-making. Looking forward, she hopes to see more conversations about the realities of child and dependent care for homeworkers. For instance, if schools and/or daycare facilities are not able to open, there are inherent impacts on the ability for parents to return to the office due to familial obligations.
Marsh mentioned that wellness is being more deliberately incorporated into building security conversations around the world, but that this security relies on an awareness of the fact that “buildings are ecosystems” and the ability of the exterior of buildings to keep germs out. She emphasized that this calls attention to the relationship complexities between landlords, tenants, and occupants. Given the lack of uniform legislation and governmental recommendations that have been issued to-date, Marsh commented on the recent emergence of tenant activism and the multitude of positive ramifications of this degree of community-organized occupant empowerment.
The conversation closed on an optimistic note, with a focus on the importance of strategic decision-making as a tool for enhancing organizational value overall. “Organizations should be looking pretty wide-open in terms of what their spatial future might look like,” Marsh noted. “There should be no stone unturned in the rethink of what can be possible now that we see the efficacy of teleworking for so many people.”