The risk and the opportunity post COVID-19: FM perspective

Government contractor KeyW’s Virginia office – Image courtesy of Fox Architects

Government contractor KeyW’s Virginia office – Image courtesy of Fox Architects

by Bob Fox — June 2020 — It’s the beginning of June 2020 and we are still sitting at home trying to plan our return to the workplace. During this time, there have been numerous articles written about how to move forward – separating people, cleaning regimes, revised schedules, transportation changes and much more.

The safety of our people, our teams, and our stakeholders are top priority and many things need to be considered before we make our return. To start, it’s important to understand your perspective and the frame of reference when you are looking at the workplace, so you don’t take a myopic reactive approach to solving this challenge.

Many years ago, someone wrote me a note describing a firm I worked for (from which they had just left) using the analogy of ants on a log, floating down a stream on a sunny day enjoying life and all the accoutrements of their community. They were completely unaware that there was a large waterfall just down the stream that would upend and destroy their very comfortable world as they knew it. That analogy opened my eyes and changed my perspective so that I was able to see the things I was unaware of and to question possible outcomes.

With COVID-19, we are in a very similar situation, but with a significant amount more stress. Let’s look at the reality of our situation:

  1. Change is rapid and constant
  2. There is a lot of uncertainty
  3. We have little control or influence
  4. Risk is high

The only way to get through this kind of a situation is to look at a variety of options, to use scenario planning for possible outcomes and remain flexible so that you can change depending on the latest and best information.

It is important to take a step back and look at what has happened. We have all been thrown in the deep end of the pool and are being forced into working situations where we have had to learn how to work and communicate remotely. This was a huge wakeup call for most of us. Those who could work remotely and adapted quickly fared much better than others who could not or struggled to adapt.


We have experienced a rapid acceleration of trends that were already taking shape and then suddenly, things were disrupted and became much harder to manage. We were thrown into a situation with little knowledge or the tools to survive.

Change has become our new reality and we now find ourselves as part of the biggest change management experiments in history. To get through this, we must be constantly moving forward. In our workplaces we must not only continue to maintain operation of physical and technical equipment, we also need to be cognizant of peoples’ behavior in order to adequately perform. We need to be quick on our feet and perform the following:

  1. Determine the best option
  2. Learn new technology as quickly as possible
  3. Keep others informed and aware
  4. Communicate the next steps
  5. Develop long term plans and budgets
  6. Implement those plans
  7. Educate everyone along the way
  8. Collect feedback and lessons learned

The Seduction of Back to Normal

As humans, we prefer a routine – something familiar and consistent. We need solid ground under our feet in order for us to be able to move forward. That is what we call “normal.” When things change and we don’t have a clear picture of our surroundings, we call that “chaos.”

We have created the perception of an alternate reality by thinking that things will get back to the way that we have always done them. The alternate reality will lead us to making bad decisions and creating unsafe conditions and will increase the risks associated with change, disseminate bad information and cause bad decision-making. While there is the possibility that things could go back to normal, this is only one option in a range of outcomes.

The Reality

While our health and safety continues to be at risk, information will continue to evolve as science, technology, and politics try to move forward. There is slim chance that we will return to the way that things were as we have been through too much, lost too many lives, and disrupted our daily patterns.

Our behavior and expectations have changed and as a result, we stand further apart, we don’t shake hands, and we probably wear masks. There will be people who fear returning to work and part of our job is to create a better and safer place to work, that goes beyond normal to make even the most fearful feel secure.

This is not a simple task. It’s complex and not a one size fits all situation. Multiple areas of expertise will need to be involved to get people back to work in a space where they are comfortable, and able to get their jobs done efficiently.

Flexibility Gets More Flexible

We have designed millions of square feet of flexible workspace. But now, we need more options. We have remote options, which includes working from home, coworking etc. We also have the necessary technology and tools and have learned how to use them. Managers have a more open attitude to off-site teams. We must use this new-found flexibility to expand the space and distance between workers.

Since our technology has gotten smaller, lighter, and faster, it has enabled the customization of work and support in an infinite variety of ways. But, the physical workplace has been slow to catch up. Only now are we starting to see more in the way of personalized and nuanced workspace.

Square Feet Per Person?

Flexibility has blurred traditional measures. How do you now measure the performance of your space if people are working from home? The SF/person metric has been a standard of the industry for decades and my guess is that your facilities may be using this measure across portfolios. Now it’s less relevant. It serves as a real estate metric to compare efficiency across a range of options and may be used to allocate or track cost, but there has been a shift. Office space has traditionally been looked upon as an asset and measured in terms of efficiency.

The shift now recognizes that the workplace is a tool to get work done. Efficiency is only one measure, and not a very good one. What’s more important is that people are attracted to the space and able to get work done and innovate new products and services. The primary purpose of office space is to achieve the goals of the organization. It should contribute value to that end. The metric should be based on the value realized, not a cost-based metric.

The Risk

While there is a continued risk of getting sick, there is also a risk of destroying the human spirit. There are those that live and work in our office spaces, compromising their overall health, job satisfaction and ultimately performance. The worst thing we could do would be to react and build environments designed out of fear and then force people to work in them.

While we are trying to protect people, there is the possibility that we will create environments that may solve one problem but then also create additional challenges. We can’t react to protect people without proper consideration and assessment of all the possible outcomes. These kinds of spaces will result in oppressive work environments that waste corporate time, resources, and money.

Frame Your Perspective

Do not react. If you’re feeling pressure or are anxious, try not to let yourself be forced to make a decision. Take a deep breath. Step back, try to look at the big picture, and understand all of the stakeholders. Be realistic and open minded. People will have a large range of expectations and needs. While it’s hard to handle so much uncertainty, try to be comfortable in knowing that change will make things better.

Most of the changes required to make a safe workplace require policy or behavioral changes. They do not require immediate expensive or physical changes. This provides the room to properly plan for any new and improved work environments.

Don’t take this on alone. Seek advice and suggestions from experts and those that you work with. Create a plan and move in that direction. Good communication and feedback will be key to making good decisions.

Seize the Opportunity

While we are trying to adjust and shift to create safe work environments, we can’t just stop there. This pandemic will leave a mark on our society, but we should be thinking about the bigger picture, long-term solution and ways of maximizing the value. Consider space that will attract people, inspire them, while keeping them safe at the same time. Make sure your space still serves to achieve the goals of your organization. Use the issues caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity to think beyond, to advance the design of your space for the following purposes:

  1. Keep people safe
  2. Provide a comfortable and productive workspace
  3. Build a community
  4. Support the culture of the organization
  5. Reinforce desired values and behavior
  6. Communicate the vision, mission, and goals
  7. Align work process and organization
  8. Build and reinforce the brand
  9. Attract the right talent
  10. Inspire those who use and visit the space
  11. Tell a story
  12. Create an experience that people will remember

Clearly these need to be thought about from the needs of your organization and its people. Everyone will have a different set of solutions. The space must be optimized for your organization and its purpose.

Utilization of a Leadership Tool

If you subscribe to the logic above, the office building and office space are much more than a real estate asset. It is the most effective tool that leaders have to build and to grow their organization. Visionary leaders today are recognizing the potential of the workplace to leverage their values and style while attracting talent and communicating complex goals and missions.

The open office failed to recognize many of those opportunities as it was looked at simply as a way to reduce cost and increase efficiency. The result was spaces that did not align or support leadership goals.

While the primary focus for the Facilities Manager is to manage operating cost, we must remember that space is a tool for the organization. It requires leadership, communication and careful planning. We have the opportunity to create new, safer spaces that will increase the performance of the organization and ultimately the value should far exceed its cost.

About the Author:

Bob FoxAs FOX Architects Chairman and Principal, Bob Fox, AIA, LEED AP, chairs the firm’s advisory board, focusing on building the firm to design more complex, integrated projects, while also helping to increase value for clients. Bob is a leader in the architecture and interior design industry and is well respected for his open-minded and innovative approach to workplace design. FOX Architects is an integrated, award-winning architecture and interior design firm in Washington, DC. Bob possesses more than 30 years of experience, is an active member of the design community, and speaks regularly at industry events focused on the future of the workplace. Bob is also the Founder and Publisher of Work Design Magazine.

Workplace Evolutionaries’ (WE’s) mission is to “change the world one workplace at a time.” It’s a global community of over a thousand professionals who care deeply about the world of work and where it’s going. Among its members are workplace strategists, change managers, facilities managers, architects, designers, HR professionals, IT managers, academics, and product and service providers. WE members enjoy three conferences a year, monthly WEbinars with thought leaders from around the world, a monthly round-up of the best workplace research and news, white papers, and a vehicle for connecting with fellow evolutionaries around the world. WE is a global Community of Practice within the International Facility Management Association.