Space without boundaries: From reimagining to managing a new way of working

See how the pandemic and working at home will impact where offices will need to change as we navigate the future of the workplace

by Kate North, Lorri Rowlandson & Colette Temmink — This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of FMJ

Within the past decade, companies such as Yahoo, IBM and HP made headline news when they required employees that were working from home (WFH) to return to the office. The consensus among many CEOs at the time was driven by the urgent need to innovate and bring new solutions to the market. For many leaders, this meant bringing people together physically to build relationships and spark new ideas that would foster innovation. In hindsight, the focus on face-to-face collaboration was needed to re-engage employees, but what some leaders missed was the fact that employees also need to concentrate.

The recent “Work from Home Experience Survey,” sponsored by IFMA’s Workplace Evolutionaries (WE) and conducted by Global Workplace Analytics and Iometrics,  found that 68 percent of respondents are successful working from home and 77 percent are fully productive working from home. Colliers’ “Working from Home Experience Survey” found that individual/focused work is better facilitated at home and collaborative activities are better facilitated in the office.

Colliers’ “Working from Home Experience Survey” highlights these preferences.

Bottom line, the purpose of the workplace is to bring people together to connect, collaborate, co-create and experience the culture and values of the organization.

Society has also recognized the importance of work-life balance, which flourishes when people are given choice and flexibility to manage the complexities in their lives, work schedules and tasks. Through the global WFH experiment, which many workers participated in and quickly adopted, a new style of leadership based on trust and inclusivity is also emerging. Leaders who can authentically connect, clearly communicate objectives and measure employees by results, not line-of-sight, will build teams that thrive in a culture of distributed work. As a professional body, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to help co-create and shape this new way of working, which will be positive for the organization, teams, individuals and the environment. As we approach the threshold of creating this new way of working for the organizations we serve, the FM’s role has never been so important.

Crisis-management expert Judy Smith noted, “There’s always an opportunity with crisis. Just as it forces an individual to look inside himself, it forces a company to re-examine its policies and practices.” COVID-19 is just such a crisis that allows companies to re-examine their workplace policies and practices. For the first time, leaders who once vehemently objected to work being done outside of the company’s offices experienced working from home first-hand. We’ve been living in an experiment that has proven we can be productive while working remotely. It is helping organizations get over the mental stigmatism of remote work, and they are rapidly accelerating remote work strategies. According to a recent Gartner survey, 74 percent of financial leaders and CFOs plan to have at least 5 percent of their on-site workforce move to remote positions following the COVID-19 crisis. This brings a new need and opportunity for a digital workplace that is without physical boundaries and an opportunity for FM leaders to manage multiple environments.

Data from Colliers also states 83 percent of workers want to work from home at least one day a week permanently, and 48 percent said one to two days a week. However, this data also shows what people miss the most is the ability to connect and collaborate with colleagues in the office. Based on these insights, new hybrid scenarios are rapidly developing that allow for greater fluidity and choice for employees. These emerging models support focused work-from-home and high-touch collaboration and innovative work in the office. None of this work can be accomplished without robust HR and IT strategies to support the physical and digital work and require strong collaboration and integration with these important allies.

To help frame these ideas, the chart below showcases the following concepts.

  • Work includes people accomplishing the work (who)
  • The place the work is being accomplished (where/workplace environments)
  • The process to enable the work and execution (how)

Figure 1: Workplace Without Boundaries

Workplace environments/Lead support organizations

The new workplace will be digitally forward and combine both virtual and physical presence. Work will be done from many locations such as the office, one’s home, co-location facilities, hotels or just about anywhere imaginable. Work is what you do, not where you are. Employees are no longer limited to the individuals and teams they sit by. Employees will be able to develop, innovate and connect across the organization through video conferencing, virtual and augmented reality, collaboration tools and other digital tools. Companies are no longer limited by the physical walls enabling innovation and can now increase innovation across all employees. While COVID-19 forces businesses into a virtual environment, they do not need to replicate the office environment of the past once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. Now is an opportune time to imagine a place you want to be. If employees can work from anywhere, why would they choose to be at the office? The answer is “the experience.” Creating this new workplace experience will require new thinking and management. A wide variety of space will accommodate those touching down for the day, teams brainstorming or options for those who do not want to work remotely. The purpose of place will be focused on collaboration, interaction, camaraderie, teaming and mentorship. It is no longer about where you work but how you work and where is this best accommodated.

Corporate real estate and FM teams have been chartered with the management of a corporation’s physical footprint. The new charter will be to manage employee services from anywhere. They will continue to focus on maintaining offices, plants, data, centers, etc.; however, the office environment will see the most change. This change will be centered around one of the most important and valuable assets of an organization: human talent. HR and IT departments will play a larger role in supporting employees in various work environments. When CRE reports to the HR department or chief experience officer, the focus tends to lead to supporting employees versus cost when they report to a CFO. It is still unclear if the increase in work environments will tip the scale to HR or IT leading in the future or whether it will be a collaborative effort among HR, IT and CRE. Also, will there be a balance between the importance or priority of people and maintaining buildings?

Enablers & automating the management of corporate office space

Regardless of the work setting, certain enablers are required to support people in any work environment.

Technology Enablers:

Initially, the employee journey back into the physical space will be filled with angst, and FMs have an opportunity to lead their organizations into the future with improved safety. The primary concerns for the employee to return to work have much to do with the facilities. For example: overall cleanliness, touching common surfaces, air filtration and quality, ensuring the density is well managed and not overcapacity, and use of community and public areas like restrooms and cafeterias. Many FMs spent the past few months with other members of their COVID19 Task Force focused on keeping people safe.   Some of the basics include HVAC testing and strategies, integrating touchless technologies where appropriate and ensuring the six-foot distancing is reinforced throughout the space with the maximum occupancy understood and managed. Also, increased cleaning and supplies are available, navigation signage, and strong and consistent communication are applied.

Other technology strategies to support safety include using an automated kiosk or thermal camera to monitor temperatures for automated site monitoring.  This new technology can immediately notify the cleaning vendor to disinfect the impacted area or remotely trigger a robot with UV lighting. Remote building system management can enable limiting access to the building or even certain areas that are impacted; then notify building occupants with instructions on what to do next via a mobile device. Sensors can help with building systems and equipment management. For example, sensors can be placed on the HVAC systems to monitor vibrations for predictive analytics to predict when the system may stop working or when certain maintenance is required. This also includes dispatching robotics for floor cleaning, window washing and disinfecting.

Further enhancing a distributed work model will require acceleration in digital transformation in certain areas such as remotely monitoring building equipment and the employees’ use of space. If an employee books a hoteling desk via a mobile device before entering the office, their experience could be based on their preferences and usage.  Integrating this technology could provide data on when they will arrive (spacing entry for lobby and elevator use), provide food options based upon preference, and conduct cleaning and supplies all based on usage.

Mobile apps are available to support a fluid experience by providing access from anywhere at any time, and remote technology (e.g., Google Docs, Zoom) will support collaboration and access to information. This level of ease and transparency keeps work visible and allows teams to stay connected to their work. Many work and management processes will also become more automated and agile. Data analytics on individual and team performance are already here. Still, there will be a further aggregation of this data that will redirect the work to whoever is best suited and available.

Automating the physical environment enabled by remote management of buildings will also be essential. Creating digital twins was cost-prohibitive in the past, given the average age of buildings.  If a building is more than 30 years old, the building systems are difficult to remotely automate. Now that sensors are becoming affordable, FMs can leapfrog antiquated infrastructure and remotely monitor buildings via sensors. This includes real-time occupancy, indoor air quality, temperature and building equipment. The business case for remote monitoring now includes reducing “truck rolls” of technicians, which reduces labor costs, avoids carbon emissions and avoids unnecessarily exposing the technician to the public.

The future will be focused on real-time occupancy tracking, remote building system management, and marketplace employee and facilities services. All of these can support quick, real-time safety responses. This technology would also get us one step closer to self-managed buildings, in which a building can monitor its systems remotely and adjust setpoints or dispatch a work order for repair. This will require an enhanced skill for FMs.


To manifest this new way of working, the mindset of the FM must remain curious, open to new possibilities and the desire to learn. When developing a new way of working the best approach to take is based on data and is a more inclusive one that integrates HR, IT, sustainability, finance, risk and communications. Throughout the crisis, we have observed that many organizations were forced to break the silos between departments and create a COVID19 Task Force to solve the immediate issues. Through this more intensified collaboration, many FMs and CREs experienced stronger alignment and partnership with HR and IT than ever before. As we begin to settle into the next phase of COVID19, is there an opportunity to expand this union and invite others with diverse expertise and mindsets to participate?

The FM will require additional skills and knowledge supporting this new way of work. It will require a desire to collaborate with HR and IT; understand workplace management and workplace strategy, change management, space management, experience management (concierge services) in addition to building maintenance, and technology (smart building, IoT, etc.); and essential skills like emotional intelligence, communication and a strong financial acumen.

The list is long, and very few of us have all the skills required. Ongoing training through IFMA’s SFP, FMP and the newly released Workplace Management Program certificate course will certainly support the FM of the future. However, the successful FM of the future will have the awareness to know when they need support, strong networks and the ability to partner with other experts, both internally and externally. Together, anything is possible.

References (Global Workplace Analytics and Iometrics) or

U.S. Report | Workplace Advisory “Exploring the post-COVID-19 Workplace”

Source: Colliers “Working from Home Experience” Global Survey

About the Authors

Kate NorthKate North is vice president of workplace innovation at Colliers International and has helped organizations create innovative workplaces and adopt new ways of working for more than 25 years. Her global expertise includes workplace strategy, change management, training, research, sustainability, design and leadership. She has authored more than 40 workplace case studies and hosts numerous learning industry events within IFMA and CoreNet. North is an active member of the Chicago Chapter of IFMA is an IFMA board member and founder of IFMA’s Workplace Evolutionaries (WE).

Lorri RowlandsonLorri Rowlandson is global senior vice president, strategy and innovation at BGIS and is an IFMA board member. She advises C-Suite real estate executives, consulting on a wide variety of topics to define and drive best outcomes for clients. Rowlandson is a hands-on thought leader, steering strategic transformation initiatives for key clients on a variety of topics, including employee experience, total cost reduction, smart buildings, organizational design, workplace and portfolio strategy, multiyear roadmapping, future proofing for disruption, practical innovation and measuring productivity.

Colette TemminkColette Temmink serves as president of property services at Eden and is an IFMA board member. She is responsible for enabling companies to seamlessly run and scale their real estate portfolios. She also oversees the strategy, delivery and quality of property services being delivered to enhance workplace performance. Temmink earned her master’s degree in Business Administration, International Finance from the American University, Washington, D.C., and a bachelor’s of science degree in Business Administration — International Business from the American International College, Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.

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