Workplace experience specialist: Post-COVID changes will be more about people than physical space

The physical changes coming to the post-COVID-19 workplace are intuitive — increased sanitization, decreased communal workspaces and, most of all, more “touchless” experiences around the office.

Roy Abernathy, an executive vice president of global workplace strategy and human experience at Newmark Knight Frank, said the changes that need to be made by the workforce are going to be harder to implement and maintain.

Abernathy said the return to the workplace will be 90% a people change and 10% a physical space change.

Speaking on a webinar sponsored by the Newark Regional Business Partnership earlier this week, Abernathy said these changes will be key in the fight to limit COVID-19 as New Jersey works to reopen its economy.

Newmark Knight Frank
Roy Abernathy of Newmark Knight Frank.

Abernathy said the challenging part of the “new normal” in offices is getting employees to form habits and stick to them for 6-9 months, at least, after returning, he said.

“From a landlord perspective, it’s initially having ambassadors to help remind occupants as they come into the building,” he said. “It typically takes 3-4 weeks for people to naturalize around a behavior, and 90 days for them to adopt it without having to think about it.

“So, consider in that period of time, we’re really training people for what this new protocol looks like.”

This protocol includes:

  • Adhering to the “6 feet apart rule” of social distancing guidelines;
  • Cleaning devices — cell phones, laptops — before and after using them in the office, as well as individual workplace surfaces used;
  • Utilizing handshake alternatives such as the “elbow bump.”

Abernathy said even one of the most dreaded office tasks — filling out a survey — will become vital. Participating in surveys will help people managers keep track of who is in a space when, in case contract tracing is necessary if an outbreak occurs

It’s all about cleaning and sanitizing. And that especially includes items workers bring into the workplace.

“From a ‘keeping it light’ perspective, make sure the workforce is minimizing things brought from home,” he said. “If you can’t minimize it, you need to be cleaning it.”

While these habits are integral, Abernathy said the biggest bottleneck for in-office work will be transportation. Until New Jersey Transit and others adopt and prove they are able to implement rigorous social distancing guidelines, employees may be more comfortable and less at-risk working from home.

“When we look at what’s happening in your region, a lot of this is really coming down to the transportation mode,” he said. “We’re even talking to MTA about how to do distancing, how to manage this and how to support it long-term.”

Abernathy said the physical changes to the workplace will be easier to implement, noting these examples:

  • Reducing or roping off furniture to reduce virus spread through surface contact;
  • Changing and cleaning air filters regularly;
  • Increasing janitorial services.

Making as many experiences as “touchless” as possible — such as prescreening a visitor rather than holding a physical ID, limiting traffic in buildings or even watching the number of different hands touching the same microwave button in the break room — also is key.

Abernathy, however, made it clear: There is no perfect solution.

“I’ve got a lot of clients today asking me about a ‘corona-free’ building. Today, there is no way to have a ‘corona-free’ building. The reality is, what we can do is take the 100% chance that we might be exposed to the virus and dwindle that chance down as much as we can.”

Landlords will be involved in all of these issues, but Abernathy said it’s important for leaders of multiple workforces in the same building to come together on a number of issues, including:

  • Assessing who is really necessary in-person and who can continue to work from home;
  • Designating certain elevators to certain floor groups, and expecting the first few floors to use the stairs;
  • Staggering different employee groups in the building —e., Company A works from 9-2 and Company B works from 2-8;
  • Staggering food deliveries (that is, company A has its lunches delivered by 11 a.m., but Company B waits until 1 p.m. Both companies retrieve food at the lobby;
  • Limiting contact with outside workers in the office. So, companies may collect their mail in the lobby instead of different delivery employees reporting to several floors.

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