Remote work, virtual meetings — what do the CRE pros think will remain for a while?

by Brianna Crandall — May 25, 2020 — Corporate real estate (CRE) professionals say that the use of remote work and virtual meetings will last beyond the immediate coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis, and a growing number say that the overall corporate footprint will likely shrink as a result, according to the latest survey by global CRE industry nonprofit CoreNet Global.

From April 22-27, CoreNet Global conducted an updated survey of its 11,000 members to gauge the evolving corporate real estate (CRE) response to the COVID-19 coronavirus challenge and to identify practical steps members can take to support their companies’ effort to ensure employee safety and business continuity. Separate surveys were sent to end-user members (119 responses) and service provider members (143 responses).

The survey was an update to previous surveys sent to the worldwide membership March 4-6, March 25-27, and April 8-13.

April 22-27 survey

In the April 22-27 survey, the longer-term adaptation of remote and virtual work was reported in greater numbers:

  • 94% of end-users think that expanded use of remote working will last beyond the current crisis (up from 89% in the previous survey)
  • 94% of end users surveyed think that expanded use of virtual meetings (e.g., vs. face-to-face meetings) will last beyond the current crisis (unchanged from the previous survey)
  • 69% of end users surveyed say that their company’s real estate footprint will shrink as a result of increased work from home (up from 51% in the previous survey)
  • 70% of respondents say that real estate projects have been put on hold (up from 67% in the previous survey)

However, these trends are not without challenges, which were identified by the respondents:

  • Being unable to have the kind of collaboration that occurs when everyone is together in the same room
  • Developing a long-term workplace strategy and remote working strategy
  • Figuring out the framework and details of our return-to-office plan
  • Extra time required to manage at a distance, with frequent check-ins to check on the emotional toll
  • Mental health of our employees
  • Accessing adequate supplies of hand sanitizer and masks
Optimism is growing

A full 19% of end-user respondents reported that their companies had experienced layoffs due to COVID-19, nearly double the figure revealed in the previous survey (10%). However, corporate real estate professionals are becoming more optimistic.

Survey respondents’ short-term economic outlook is less bullish than their longer-term outlook, but it is more optimistic than it was during the previous survey. When asked “Are you more or less optimistic about the economic future over the next three months?” the average rating (on a 1-5 scale, with 1 = low and 5 = high) was 2.5 for both end users and service providers. In the previous survey, the average rating was 2.3.

When that time frame is expanded to six months, the service provider rating rose to 3.13 (up from 3.0 in the previous survey), while the end-user rating (2.95) remained essentially unchanged from the previous survey (3.0).

April 8-13 survey

The April 8-13 survey indicated that CRE professionals believe workers will return in waves, as opposed to all returning at once. The survey provided insight on a key question confronting CRE professionals: how, when and under what circumstances will employees begin to return to their typical workplace — the office — when the health and safety concerns posed by COVID-19 have diminished, with 163 members responding.

A full 84% of survey respondents indicated that they plan to bring employees back in waves; only 16% reported plans to bring all employees back at the same time. The CRE professionals cited a variety of methods in determining which employees will return:

  • Those with the greatest need to be in the office will be the first to return.
  • Expanded work hours and shifts will allow for thinner numbers to be in the office.
  • We will bring 20% of our staff back two weeks after the stay-at-home order is lifted, then an additional 20% every two weeks.
  • We are likely to use alternating weeks; social distancing must be respected.
  • We will utilize only every other seat to maintain six feet of social distancing.
  • Anyone high risk will be encouraged to continue working from home.
  • We will encourage many to continue working from home.

Opinions were more mixed as to when returning will begin. Just over one-third (35%) of respondents anticipated that employees will begin returning to the office in May 2020, while 30% thought it would be June 2020 or later. Some 33% said that it’s simply too early to say.

A full 65% of survey respondents reported that they will consider it safe to return to the office when government stay-at-home orders expire. Meanwhile, about one in four respondents indicated that certain country, state or local thresholds must be met first, such as when there are no confirmed new cases for 14 days.

In other survey highlights:

  • 72% of survey respondents stated their opinion that additional cleaning protocols will still be in place six months after employees return to the office, followed by continued emphasis on hand-washing (68%), limits on in-person group meetings (36%), continuing social distancing rules with six feet of separation (30%) and expanded work hours and other strategies to limit the number of people in the office at one time (25%).
  • For employees who must report to an office for a necessary business need, the most cited strategy to ensure employee safety was continuing social distancing in the office, cited by 92% of respondents. Following were expanded cleaning protocols (86%), expanded hand-washing requirements (77%), limiting in-person group meetings (60%), keeping associates separated by having only a portion in the office at a time (55%) and temperature checks (36%).
  • 49% of survey respondents stated that the option to continue working remotely will be offered to associates who might be uncomfortable returning to the office.
  • 71% of respondents stated that their companies are making accommodations for employees who have day-care challenges as a result of school being canceled.
  • 66% of survey respondents report having a more positive view of remote working than previously. Only 1% of respondents say they have a more negative view of remote working than previously.
  • HR is the corporate function most often represented in companies’ COVID-19 task forces, cited by 84% of respondents. The following were CRE (77%), Operations (67%), Communications (66%), IT (64%), Security (56%) and Health and Safety (55%).
  • 58% of respondents reported that all or part of their company’s operations is considered essential. Of those respondents, about one-third offer hazard pay, while two-thirds do not.
  • 92% of respondents stated that C-Suite or other senior executives are in their decision tree in terms of when it will be safe to return to the office, followed by state or local health officials (78%) and federal health officials (52%).
  • Some 78% of survey respondents reported that they look to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for guidance in terms of when it will be safe to return to the office, followed by state health officials (73%) and the World Health Organization (59%).

March 25-27 survey

In the March 25-27 tracking survey, nearly all of the respondents (111 end user members and 134 service provider members) reported the expanded use of virtual meetings and remote work instituted as a response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak will last beyond the current crisis. Reflected in the survey findings were intensified efforts to respond to COVID-19 and to respond to widespread government mandates to shelter at home (and to work from home):

Among the findings at that time:

  • 72% had shut down one or more facilities, compared to 55% previously.
  • 60% had reduced hours of operation at one or more facilities, up from 39%.
  • 60% had established more stringent security (e.g., building entry) procedures for visitors, such as health screenings (up from 45%).
  • 67% of respondents said that real estate projects have been put on hold.
  • A slight majority (51%) said that their company’s real estate footprint will shrink as a result of increased work from home.
  • 97% of respondents were supporting a corporate mandate for expanded remote working, unchanged from the previous survey.
  • 56% of respondents reported that their companies had assisted local, state or federal governments with their response to COVID-19.

March 4-6 survey

The March 4-6 survey (with nearly 200 end-user respondents) revealed that CRE is playing a strategic role in helping companies respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak by partnering more closely with other key corporate functions, ensuring employee health and safety, and supporting business continuity efforts through remote working and other means.

CRE Asia-Pacific roundtable March 11-12

At a roundtable discussion held during APAClive, a virtual conference focusing on corporate real estate in Asia-Pacific hosted by CoreNet Global, CRE leaders said that the changes in work patterns in response to the outbreak will last longer than the outbreak itself.

One lasting impact identified by respondents is that employees will have heightened expectations of a company’s hygiene practices, and employers and landlords will need to demonstrate the cleanliness of the work environment.

Additionally, activity-based working at remote locations is expected to become more widely accepted.

One respondent said the focus on hygiene will lead to greater use of new technologies to clean, such as electrostatic disinfectants that cover wider areas and last longer.

Hui Xu, MCR, managing director, Greater China Geographic Services lead (Beijing), Accenture, said that moving forward, preparedness will be critical. Xu remarked:

I would be uncomfortable if someone did not have a mask on. The psychological impact will last a long time. It will have an impact on how people interact with each other for a long period of time.

One lesson learned, Xu said, is that employees can be depended upon to make appropriate decisions with accurate information; for example, his company found that instituting complex levels for approval of business travel proved unnecessary.

The panel all agreed that the COVID-19 outbreak will be a continuous learning experience, and that finding the balance between informing and not inciting panic is critically important.

APAClive session recordings are now available.

CoreNet Global Hackathon

CoreNet Global is also providing the CoreNet Global Hackathon: A COVID-19 Virtual Ideation Experience sponsored webinars beginning May 10, with various companies participating. The Hackathon provides a compelling opportunity to ideate with peers across the globe to develop collective solutions that go beyond the immediate crisis response — and help ensure the long-term health and well-being of citizens, companies, and communities.

Final reports are to be released May 27-30, with summary reports available June 1.

COVID-19/Coronavirus Resources

CoreNet Global’s comprehensive COVID-19/Coronavirus Resources webpage is updated often with upcoming events, agency and government resources, articles on the CRE response to the COVID-19 challenge, disaster planning / outbreak preparation, facilities management considerations / building operations, member perspectives, remote working guidance, return-to-work resources, safety/health/wellness guidelines, tenant/occupier issues, Virtual Pop-Up Webinar notes, workplace articles, and other resources.