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Survival Strategy Sessions: Business Service Offices

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, office dwellers set up in their homes. While only 25 percent of workers worked remotely before, that number jumped to 62 percent, leaving offices empty, according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Many of those people won't return to a normal office routine, while some can't wait to snuggle back into their cubicles.

“We are at a tipping point and senior leaders must make a choice about where and how people will work," says Rebecca Dean, vice president and design innovator for a company called Business Furniture, an Indiana dealer for Steelcase, a manufacturer of industrial and office furnishings. “A crash course in remote work pushed people to improve their digital skills and now the physical and digital need to come together in spaces that support co-located and distance work. Work from home will no longer be seen as a 'perk' but an integral environment for the workplace."

The shift to working from home—whether it's permanent or just until there's a vaccine for COVID-19—means that a lot of offices are sitting empty, leaving some landlords in the lurch, and businesses wondering how to return safely and effectively.

Keeping the Lights On

We're still in a bit of a limbo, which can be painful. Greg Hrabcak, the National Association of Realtors' regional vice president and an expert in commercial real estate, runs the commercial division of HER Realtors in Central Ohio.

He says that the CARE Act and government loan programs helped keep many office-renters afloat, but still there were some delinquencies.

“One thing that doesn't go away with these properties and office buildings is that there are always operating costs. There are taxes. There's insurance. And there's maintenance. The rent provides that to the owners of the property," Hrabcak says.

The most helpful thing you can do in a situation where it's hard to meet your monthly expenses is to communicate with your lender or management company, Hrabcak says. At this point, most people understand the need for flexibility in a way they never have. “Are there delinquencies in rent? Yes, there are. But we're all working together through it."

Moving Forward

While creativity and innovation always counts in any business, Hrabcak says he hasn't seen too many office spaces transform into yoga studios and preschools—yet. But he's pretty certain that people will come back to work within a new paradigm.

“The office of the future may be different. There may be more hard-walled individual offices. There may be more open space that provides safe spaces between employees," he says. He adds that some larger firms may split into smaller, separate spaces to mitigate risk.

What's non-negotiable is a rigorous cleaning protocol and review of systems that may need upgrading, such as air filtration and HVACs. The Centers for Disease Control has guidelines for how to return to an office setting.

The McKinsey report also suggested these steps to help offices survive and thrive during the pandemic and beyond:

Reconstruct how work is done: This is a good opportunity to audit all processes and how they fit into business goals, geography and function—with ample employee input. “This effort should examine their professional-development journeys (for instance, being physically present in the office at the start and working remotely later) and the different stages of projects (such as being physically co-located for initial planning and working remotely for execution)."

Rethink remote work: Not all roles need to be carried out in person, and some work can be done as a hybrid situation, as we've learned. Letting people who want to work remotely, in fact, may be the key to attracting personnel from other places who aren't interested in relocating. “This approach could be a winning proposition for both employers and employees, with profound effects on the quality of talent an organization can access and the cost of that talent."

Redesign the workspace: It's time to up your tech and the physical space to maintain productivity. Will you still need all those conference rooms? Will cubicles stay, or will there be a new way to collaborate within a team? Think about always-on videoconferencing and digital collaboration tools that work seamlessly in person. In addition, get a clear idea about where your employees live and how they commute. “Flex space" is getting a closer look as a way to save on rents and maximize the company's resources. “Instead of adjusting the existing footprint incrementally, companies should take a fresh look at how much and where space is required and how it fosters desired outcomes for collaboration, productivity, culture, and the work experience."

And no matter what, it's more important than ever to listen to employees and ensure their safety and well-being. Flexibility in the face of ever-evolving science and pandemic progress is a huge part of not only surviving but thriving in a new post-pandemic world.

“Everyone's sense of what makes them feel safe will be different and will change over time," Dean says. “We will need an expanded ecosystem of places—the workplace, home and potential satellite spaces—from which people can choose where and how to work based on their needs. By giving people choice, they are able to feel a sense of control over their work and a sense of safety."