by John Wang — This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of FMJ
Last year concluded with little more order to it than 2020. Organizations announced hard dates or a return to the office and quickly found themselves at odds with reluctant employees. Meanwhile, COVID-19 had plans of its own — organizations had to change their strategies and reprioritize to meet both the needs of employees who were no longer happy with being put back in their boxes and a virus that could change the rules of the game at a moment’s notice. The need arose to reassess business requirements to champion a model that was both sustainable in a business sense and one in which the employee experience was paramount.
Flexible, remote or hybrid working is now formalized company policy rather than a temporary workaround. The shift to decentralized working models that embrace flexibility at their core — heeding external conditions and employee sentiments, rather than just the opinions of upper management — do better to guarantee long-term organizational resilience.
Putting employees back in the box
After the amount of hurdles organizations have had to jump over — government-mandated work-from-home orders, supply chain disruptions, a rapidly changing virus — they could be ready to compete at an Olympic level.
Employees’ concerns regarding returning to the office:
- 35% are concerned about contracting COVID-19
- 32% are concerned with touching things that other people have touched
- 30% are concerned with knowing whether to shake hands, fist bump or touch elbows with others
- 20% are concerned with not having a permanent desk at the office
What were thought to be hard return-to-work deadlines around the second half of 2021 were pushed back once, then twice, until ultimately being put on ice indefinitely thanks to COVID-19 consistently moving the goal posts. It is not just a few small companies either. Big players such as Microsoft and Google have ditched deadlines to instead take an adaptive approach to situational developments. Employees said “no thanks” to a return to the office, citing concerns of health and safety, higher rates of productivity when working from home and a strong preference for this newly found flexibility.
For these reasons, organizations are realigning their strategy, building for long-term uncertainty by simultaneously championing workplace resiliency and radically improving the employee experience. These plans have given rise to a host of new working models that take resiliency to heart and do well to appease both employers and employees alike.
The hub-and-spoke model
The hub-and-spoke model is being adopted by some big names such as IT conglomerate Fujitsu who signaled they are already moving away from the conventional practice of working from a fixed office. Instead, employees are encouraged to choose where they want to work, be it their home, a main hub or a satellite office. The model will feature a streamlined headquarters (now with a 50 percent reduced footprint), hubs in larger metropolitans and multiple satellite offices spread across the islands of Japan for staff to work near home. This presents all the benefits of being in a structured office environment while cutting out the arduous commute.
Likewise, some of the U.K.’s largest banks such as Virgin Money and Metro Bank are converting their now less-frequented customer-banking branches into working space for corporate staff to acclimatize to long-term COVID-19 impact.
Decentralizing the workplace with hub-and-spoke is a growing trend because it can help mitigate concerns related to contracting COVID-19. For the employee, the benefits include the structure of the office, a reduced commute and a place to meet team members. Employees are together in smaller clusters, outbreaks can be limited and reduced commuting times can protect staff.
The activity-based working model
There are also organizations rolling out activity-based working (ABW); diverse and dynamic working spaces — such as quiet hubs, collaborative café areas or huddle rooms — that can be utilized depending on the working needs of the employee. By granting the flexibility of when, where and how they work, employees gain greater control over their working environments and the ability to personalize their journey throughout the office. This high level of flexibility gives employees an improved workplace experience, bolstering their resiliency and ability to deal with external changes, in turn boosting resiliency of their organizations.
ABW can present fresh challenges for even the most seasoned FM professional. Space requirements ebb and flow, so how do FMs find the right mix? Without analysis in the background, it can be merely stabs in the dark. Increase desk space? Expand communal space? Subdivide meeting rooms into quiet hubs?
Bouncing back: Why be resilient?
Why is resiliency in the workplace so essential right now? Many successful organizations have (or had) well-established and effective protocols, ranging from defining overall business direction for the next five years to something as trivial as clocking in and out for work. In times of stability, these measures are great; but once a crisis hits, the cracks quickly start to show.
Professor David Denyer of Cranfield School of Management in the U.K. defines resiliency as “The ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.” [i] How quickly can an organization get back on its feet after a crisis?
Organizational resilience is very much centered around employee resilience. It is up to the organization to actively support the employee so that in turn, they may respond to external adversity. They can respond in a positive manner, and in a way that helps the organization not only survive but thrive. As work and workplace flexibility arrangements become official policies, the ability to rebound becomes increasingly important.
Products of their environment
When staff feel the workplace experience has been downgraded, it shows in their work and level of engagement. According to a survey by Glassdoor, while more than half of employees were “eager to return” to the office in a flexible manner, nearly 90 percent of employees expressed serious concerns about returning to the office. This is affecting overall organizational resiliency, with the benefits of returning to the workplace wiped out by the potential risks. Furthermore, blanket return-to-office mandates without paying due attention to these concerns could be highly detrimental to the workplace experience.
Organizational resiliency requires input from different stakeholders across all levels of the organization to be enacted successfully. It is not just staff with concerns on their minds, it is a tough time for FMs too. Never has the spotlight shone so brightly on the workplace environment as during the pandemic — employees are more cautious, even fearful, of the spaces they inhabit and who they share space with.
Planned increase in investment
- Conference room with enhanced virtual connectivity: 57%
- Hoteling applications: 50%
- Communal space: 48%
- Unassigned seating 45%
Source: PwC US Remote Work Survey
Fortunately, help is at hand, with organizations realizing these concerns and acknowledging their duty of care by offering increased funding to support more resilient workplace models. In a remote work survey by PwC, U.S. executives signaled they are already, or will be, planning new investments to support hybrid work.
Much of this investment will likely be directed toward workplace technologies (such as scheduling, safety tools and sensors) to support these evolving, more resilient workplace models. It is a time of colossal change, and FMs should make their voices heard if they are not already, to take on a position of leadership, guiding FM choices and selecting models that help allay the concerns of a returning workforce and establish their organizations as highly resilient.
Resiliency-centric workplace technologies
Spurred on by the outbreak, a host of technologies have truly come into their element with the power to make or break flexible work models. When utilizing a hub-and-spoke model, there is inherently a greater number, but smaller and more dispersed locations for FMs to oversee, which consequently incur a greater need for technologies. Scheduling and booking tools, for example, will better manage occupancy and avoid overcrowding a smaller venue. Furthermore, these systems must span the entire organization. Expecting employees to use a different system or app for each satellite or hub location does not make any sense and hinders the collaboration it is trying to encourage.
The larger challenge for FMs may be overlooking the necessity for all hubs and satellite offices to be connected instead of each running their own smart building system. Room and desk booking systems, sensors, HVAC and so on, must communicate together. This highlights the importance of a unified integrated workplace management system for all facilities in this model, or integration will be a major headache, and in a worst-case scenario leave systems in different branches siloed. Imagine having to individually check each office to find a vacancy.
Recent usage statistics and data from space reservation systems and capacity sensors can quickly provide guidance in how space is being used correlated with how external conditions are changing habits. However, this can only be done in a meaningful way when data from all locations can be consolidated within a central platform for analysis to create a more accurate overview of utilization, then guide how adjustments should be made to meet actual space needs.
In an activity-based workplace, there are peaks and valleys in occupancy. Monday mornings can start slowly, peaking around midweek and tailing off by Friday. Going over capacity with not enough desks to satisfy staff needs become an issue — not to mention adequately observing social distancing. Desk booking systems and occupancy sensors can give live occupancy information, allowing an employee to secure a spot before they arrive at the office and dissuading those without a reservation to come to the office when capacity is already at its limit.
There are also concerns about touching things previously touched by someone else. This comes at a time when cleaning and sanitization protocols have never needed to be so stringent. When employees fear cross-contamination, shared desk space can be a source of anxiety for employees and affect their ability to stay productive in the office. Tackling and reducing clusters and outbreaks is imperative for organizational resiliency. Data from desk booking devices and sensors can trigger notifications to cleaning teams that a reservation is complete and sanitization is necessary prior to the next occupant’s arrival. The occupant can be assured all surfaces and equipment have been sterilized. With added support for low-touch options such as touchless desk check-ins, extra unnecessary contact can be further reduced.
Choosing the right workplace model can bolster employees and improve their ability to bounce back during times of great uncertainty. FMs should seek essential technologies that facilitate these resiliency-enabling models. Executives have signaled they are willing to invest, but FMs must guide and help select the optimal model, then take charge of technology investment spending that offers the best ROI and alleviates employee return-to-work concerns.
About the author
John Wang is co-founder and CEO of IAdea Corporation, a company focused on transforming the world with digital signage technologies. IAdea’s products deliver the next-generation Smart Workplace, Smart Transportation, and Smart Retail. Its innovations are licensed and distributed by leading brands globally. Large-scale digital signage deployments around the world are often built with IAdea technology. Wang led IAdea to receive several industry recognitions, including Red Herring’s Asia 100 Award as an innovative and fast-growing company. In 2018 he was recognized by the Outstanding Individual Award at the Digital Signage Awards for his contribution in promoting uses of digital signage technology around the globe. He received his master’s degree in computer science from the National Taiwan University.
[i] Denyer, D. (2017). Organizational Resilience: A summary of academic evidence, business insights and new thinking. BSI and Cranfield School of Management.