Rethinking the Workplace Through and Beyond COVID-19

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Managers can adapt their offices to support safe reopening while achieving longer-term goals.

The pandemic is transforming the way we work, and it’s transforming government, too. Following the economic impact of state stay-at-home orders, your organization is likely facing historic pressure to perform more efficiently, while also navigating all-new workplace safety considerations. But armed with data and technology, you can adapt your workplace to support safe re-opening in the short-term, while building toward long-term productivity and cost-savings goals.

State and local governments have always felt pressured to do more with less, and perhaps never more than today. Many state governments anticipate tax revenue declines of as much as 40% due to unprecedented unemployment and resulting losses in sales, property and income tax revenues, according to JLL analysis. Across the board, government leaders are facing major gaps in short- and long-term funding for ongoing operations and constituent services. At the same time, many are “eating” the cost of government offices that are either still shuttered or reopening in phases

As many employees transitioned to remote under local stay-home orders, government leaders in some cases saw for the first time that it's possible for employees to be as productive and engaged while working from home as from the office, at least over relatively short periods of time. Pre-crisis, just 40% of government entities had a "mobility" program in place. Following today’s crash course in remote work, some are now considering deliberate investments in a mobility strategy that will benefit employees and the bottom line. 

But there is a need to return to a physical, shared space—while meeting social distancing guidelines—that is casting a hard light on the government sector’s historically high workplace density rates. According to JLL’s 2020 Occupancy Benchmarking Report, government entities have higher office density than almost any other industry. Government is tied with the manufacturing sector at 150 rentable square feet per seat, second only to telecommunications at 125.  

Social distancing requires more space, not less. Changing course in the age of the pandemic means going against 20 years of increasing office density to create safe physical distances between workstations. Concurrently, managers need to foster long-term employee productivity, collaboration and efficiency. Smart occupancy strategies can help your organization address these competing concerns, while controlling occupancy costs. 

Enable Social Distancing Now

For many organizations, remote work is likely to be part of the solution to incorporate workplace social distancing without growing the real estate footprint at a time of severe budget constraints. Some agencies also are considering office shifts or rotations, enabling employees to come to the office—but not all at once. Following the steep learning curve forced by the sudden shelter-in-place orders, now is a good time to step back and structure more robust, strategic policies and support systems for innovative workplace strategies. As you consider new approaches, you may need to collaborate with your labor representatives, too, to ensure agreement on fair and productive workplace policies. 

To ease into a safe re-entry into the physical office, first steps include adopting a phased approach and removing seats so that workstations are at least 7.5 feet apart. Occupancy planning technology tools can accelerate the process by allowing you to easily integrate floor plans, seat assignments and shared space bookings. With these capabilities, your facility teams can quickly identify the need for enhanced cleaning protocols or to adjust personnel schedules. 

Use Data to Plan for a New Normal 

Through and beyond the pandemic, nearly every governmental organization is experiencing the pressure to become more agile, resilient and innovative. Occupancy planning tools can give you the insights you need to manage your workplaces through uncertainty, and accommodate sudden demands to scale resources up or down. 

For example, with real-time WiFi login and security badge data, as well as data from heat and motion sensors, you can analyze space utilization trends to understand how people are using their workplaces and determine whether your space is meeting employees’ current needs. You can also use occupancy and space utilization data to anticipate future needs, such as greater adoption of teleworking. With predictive analytics, you can leverage data-driven insights to right-size your larger real estate footprint and drive down real estate costs over time.

Every government organization’s return-to-work plan will be different, based on state and local guidelines as well as your own unique workplace culture. But all workplaces in the government sector will need to be pandemic-ready for the indefinite future. The steps you take now to help employees work safely will affect long-term performance and costs, too. 

By using new occupancy data and workplace technology, you can holistically evaluate how your people work, the space they need, and the technologies they use to optimize citizen services. That’s the kind of visionary approach that can improve government efficiency and benefit any community. 

Kevin Wayer is the president of real estate services firm JLL’s public sector and higher education business.

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