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4 Ways HR and Digital Workplace Teams Should Work With Corporate Facilities

March 29, 2021 Digital Workplace
scott clark
By Scott Clark

With a return to the office on the horizon, there's a pressing need for HR and digital workplace teams to work closely with facilities and real estate teams. But where should they start? What are the areas for collaboration and what are the sticking points?

Many companies are actively working on standardized workforce planning to address the post-pandemic workplace. According to recent APQC research, 89% of companies have integrated workforce planning with business planning, however, 46% reported that their workforce planning is either moderately or less effective.

There is no time to waste, and now is the time to consider how the digital workplace and collaboration technology comes together with social distancing practices and office real estate. Here are four ways that HR, digital and IT teams, and office facility managers can work together.

Consider Hybrid: Where the Digital Workplace Meets the Physical One

Although most organizations have begun to embrace the hybrid workforce, they have yet to fully consider the benefits of it nor have they actually planned to seriously support it, said Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights at Herman Miller, a Zeeland, Mich.-based maker of office and home furniture and equipment.

“Essentially, they’ve gotten halfway there by giving permission to employees to not come in once or twice a week," he said. "But the more enlightened view is to purposefully support work outside of the office, which leads to a great increase in equitable, inclusive experiences and a more engaged workforce that can positively impact business results."

There are almost a billion people working from home, many of whom do not wish to return to the office, said Iain Fisher, director and solutions lead of ISG Digital EMEA at ISG, a technology research and advisory firm. For those employees, the new “office” is just a euphemism for “where they want to work” in order to deliver the work their employer needs.

“Physical return requires a new way of thinking to ensure that resilience is built-in rather than just efficiency," he said. "New augmented, lower touch technology will be needed to assist employees to navigate the office and it will no longer be a prerequisite that all must be together to work together. Remote connection has been shown to be just as effective.”

This is where technology meets corporate facilities, as the digital workplace adapts to meet the ongoing challenges of the hybrid workplace while keeping health and safety a priority. Given that remote workers have proven that they are just as productive as in-office workers, discussion about the move back to the office is no longer about productivity, but rather the intangible elements of the office environment.

“So the return to the office is to bring back the harder-to-achieve things like true social interaction, allow physical use of products or services, deploy a better, more focused customer experience, etc.,” said Fisher.

Related Article: Get Reworked Podcast: The Future of Office Design After COVID

Assess the Social Impact of the Pandemic on the Workplace

As companies shift from a workplace-centric world to a worker-centric world, the concepts of work, the workforce and the workplace will change drastically.

JLL released a research report, "Reimagine the Next Normal of Real Estate," detailing what the real estate firm believes work will look like in 2025 and beyond. The paradigms that have begun to shift in the last year will have lasting impacts and repercussions on the ways that employers and employees view the workplace. The report describes a “shadow pandemic," referring to the long-lasting psychological and social impacts of the pandemic on mental health, social and systemic resilience, and health and social inequities, as part of the “health footprint” of society and the workforce. 

A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2020 indicated that 56% of adults feel that worry and stress related to COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health. One in five said the pandemic had a major toll on their mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) said in October 2020 that the effects of the pandemic has caused feelings of bereavement, isolation and fear, which are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones, and that many people have faced increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia and anxiety. Those who have been lucky enough to not lose anyone are still suffering grief over the loss of normalcy in their lives.

Companies will need to take this into account as they revisit their policies that impact the mental and emotional health of employees. The pandemic has changed expectations about the way employers relate to employees.

“They now expect that their employers will take an active role in supporting their physical and emotional health, while also supporting professional growth through training to learn the skills needed to work in new ways,” said Elizebeth Varghese, global leader of talent and HR strategy reinvention at IBM Global Business Services. “While business leaders believe they’re making good progress in these areas, employees see a lot of room for improvement.” 

She said IBM's research found a significant disconnect between how effective business leaders believe they are vs. how employees believe companies have been in addressing these gaps.

"There is increased urgency for HR to drive this organizational transformation from the inside out, but to do so, HR itself must transform, and the role of CHROs must evolve similar to how CFOs did in 2008,” Varghese suggested, referring to the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Related Article: One Year Later, the Pandemic's Grim Toll on Employee Mental Health Is Clear

Put Health and Safety First

As companies revisit their office policies, it's important to introduce and adopt technologies that directly address the health and safety of employees and visitors alike, said Heather Poulin, vice president of commercial and industrial printing marketing and portfolio management at Ricoh USA, Inc. 

“While specific workspace and tools might differ depending on whether a company is planning a full return or a hybrid workplace/remote work scenario, the goals should be the same — with health and safety leading the list of priorities,” she said.

As COVID restrictions ease and more people are vaccinated, societal awareness of personal space and social distancing is not likely to go away and companies will have to focus on how to allow employees to work while providing them with the highest measures of safety and reassurance. Low-touch and no-touch technologies will play a role as employees return to the office, as will other tools that enable collaboration among distributed employees.

“Technology will play a critical role in returning to the office, as digital tools like intelligent mail delivery, cloud-based collaboration tools, automation of facility requests, touchless or low-touch device management, workflow automation and so on contribute to productivity and efficiency,” said Poulin. “And, most importantly, technology will enable the critical safety measures that will be necessary, including personnel density and physical distancing analysis tools to accommodate social distancing protocols.” 

By using technology and practicing empathy to the needs and emotional health of employees, companies will be able to instill workforce confidence and loyalty. “Through the use of all of these technology tools, IT teams can work with HR and facility managers to help ensure employee health, safety and overall satisfaction — three things that will be key to successful return to office scenarios across industries,” Poulin said.

Although people have gotten used to plexiglass dividers in stores and restaurants, Herman Miller's Anderson doesn’t see much longevity to them or the heavy cleaning measures that many employers have instituted. “The topics that will be on the forefront will relate to healthier buildings as a whole," he said. "Better indoor air quality, natural lighting, etc. as well as an emphasis on outdoor working and biophilic design, bringing the outdoors in.”

The Internet of Things (IoT) could be instrumental in helping HR departments and facility managers connect and protect employees by delivering solutions that promote a healthy workspace. Scientific research has indicated that good air flow is a key to increasing protection and slowing the spread of COVID-19, said Alistair Fulton, vice president and general manager of the Wireless and Sensing Products Group at Semtech, a supplier of semiconductor technology. According to the CDC, rooms need to be ventilated six times a day, he said.

“Carbon dioxide in combination with humidity and temperature are a reliable indicator for indoor air quality," he said. "An easy way for businesses to check air quality levels and ensure there’s proper ventilation is by installing wireless IoT sensors in various locations inside the building.”

Related Article: Companies Grapple with the Return to Office Decision

Focus on Collaboration: The Office's Killer App

The world is in for some surprises when it comes to post-COVID collaborative behaviors within the workplace, Anderson said.

Socialization, which is a prerequisite to collaboration, will be a major focus of life in the office and in society in general, he said, as will longer duration collaborative activities such as planning sessions. "The day-to-day activities of synchronous video interaction and asynchronous times of individual contributions are not well supported in the office," Anderson said. "I think we’ll see people either continue to do these from home or offices get wise and support them better."

The office environment of the future is going to have to be inclusive, allowing those in the office to collaborate with those working in other locations. Poulin said her company works to simplify the complexities associated with returning to the office by customizing the technologies and services they need to their environment as part of individual plans to return to a physical workspace.

“Ultimately, companies that will see the greatest success in their return to office plans will be ones that help ensure these three areas of company management — HR, digital/IT, and facilities/real estate — closely collaborate to create both on-premise workspaces and off-premise digital spaces that promote team efficiency and collaboration, and maximize health and safety, above all else,” she said.  

With the prospect of a return to the office, it’s vital for HR departments to be working from the same playbook as corporate facilities and real estate teams, said E.J. Marin, head of global HR solutions engineering at Nakisa, a provider of organization design and accounting and compliance services.

“The first step would be for HR to review the company’s organizational chart and determine where employees are largely located," Marin said. "With these insights, HR will be able to get a big picture overview of the organization and can collaborate with real estate teams on the type of space that will be needed depending on the size of the workforce in any particular location."

Real estate teams will need to get an idea of whether office leases will need to be renewed, terminated or extended. In order to get to that point, HR and real estate teams both require accurate, real-time data and analytics about lease contracts and workforce structure. Marin said this will allow them to ensure they are not spending money on unneeded office spaces and are staying productive and facilitating a smooth transition back into the office. 

Companies are facing many challenges as the world returns to “the next normal” after a year of dealing with the pandemic. The hybrid workforce is here to stay and companies will have to deal with the ongoing societal impact of the pandemic on employees' mental and emotional health. Health and safety will remain the top concern as workers return to the office and collaborative workspaces will become even more important.

HR and digital workplace teams will have to come together to work out what is required for the company to become more resilient, more profitable and more engaging as they work to attract and retain both employees and customers.

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