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Regaining focus, recentring the office around the modern employee

The future of the office has become a contentious topic, with businesses and individuals having been forced to re-evaluate their working conditions. 2021 is likely to be a year where many strive to find the right balance.

Work from home models bring significant financial savings for businesses, but at what cost to employee productivity? Maintaining the pre-Covid routine of mandatory office attendance boosts senior management’s visibility of their workforce, but this is likely to have repercussions on employee satisfaction, well-being and health. In this most modern of dilemmas, HR teams will be pondering the question – do we need a physical office?

Simply put, yes, most businesses will continue to need office spaces, possibly even more than they did before the pandemic, but they may serve a different purpose. The move away from the physical in the past year, by choice or not, has shone a light on the opportunities for improvement in the workplace, especially in terms of work-life-balance, employee well-being and ensuring time spent in the office is worthwhile for employees and the business alike.

According to a CBRE report, about 85% of employees prefer a hybrid working model – reaping the benefits of comfort and convenience working from home, with continued access to collaboration spaces and technology in the office. The workplace has come to a cross-roads – employees now expect more, and employers face new environmental, financial and safety challenges. While we all seek binary answers, the future of working is likely to be a mix of working from home and the office. What we can been sure of is that digital technology will be fundamental in ensuring the built environment is safe, productive and flexible.

Appetite for autonomy

A noticeable effect of the mass shift to remote working is a rise in employee autonomy. During the pandemic, whilst most aspects of our lives were out of our hands, employees will have experienced enhanced control over their working day – which they are reluctant to give up.

From control over their environment in terms of lighting, temperature and noise, to spending their lunch hour with their families and relaxed dress codes, many employees have become used to the enhanced comfort and control that working from home can offer.

Others have reacted differently. A survey from the Society for Human Resources found that 71% of us are struggling to adjust to remote work, with maintaining employee morale and company culture being major challenges for HR teams. The workforce has undoubtedly faced lack of motivation and ‘cabin-fever’, as well as missing the collaboration that comes from a team environment.

Ultimately, the modern workforce wants the benefit of independent choice. After all, who knows what works best for the employee, better than the employee themself. A hybrid approach also benefits the wider organisation. Giving the workforce the ability to choose whether to attend the office, based on their tasks that day, will boost productivity and ensure office resources are being used effectively.

Going forward, HR teams will need the ability to create an experience that is as comfortable, safe and personalised as working from home, in the office environment. Using workplace apps, administrators can deliver critical notifications about changing site situations directly to each user’s phone. In this way, employees know exactly what to expect during the week and, in a hybrid working model, make informed decisions on whether to work from home or attend the office that day. They can also gain the ability to change the temperature, lighting and check air quality from a single application and gain more insight and control over their specific office environment.

Bringing employee well-being into focus

After the trials of 2020, society as a whole has a renewed awareness of health and safety. This is especially true for the workforce. After potentially spending months in the safety of their homes, where social distancing and shared equipment wasn’t an issue, there will be some apprehension towards the return to the office.

In 2021, HR departments will need to create a culture of trust and accountability, making teams confident that their safety is of the highest priority. Employee well-being and safety is now back at the top of the agenda, where it should have always been.

This renewed focus poses an opportunity for HR teams to do what they do best – support their people. There are now many new elements to be considered, like air circulation, social distancing, building occupancy and support of employees mentally and emotionally. This can no longer be the sole responsibility of human resource staff. Connected, intelligent building management systems (BMS) are essential for ensuring workforce safety and trust and preventing HR teams from becoming overwhelmed with this wide variety of considerations.

Given the return to the office is largely driven by a hunger for collaboration and working as part of a group, social distancing and occupancy are sure to pose a challenge for HR teams.

Using location analytics for insights into the behaviour of how people are interacting in physical spaces, smart building technology, such as instant room counts, can be used to fill a building up responsibly while still following local COVID-19 guidelines. When there’s too many people in a space, users can receive an automated message to alert them in real time. This provides comfort to users as they are not held responsible for being fully aware of continuously changing social distancing policies and are assured of the steps being taken to protect them. Maintaining this tight connection between people present in the building, the building management system, and how the building reacts to keep occupants safe and comfortable is vital for building back employee trust in the safety of the workplace.

Even further than this, intelligent building technology helps provide enhanced well-being and comfort, as well as safety. By actively monitoring temperature, humidity, CO2, noise, light and volatile organic compound (VOC) levels, Building Management Systems empower HR teams to create an enjoyable environment, in which employees are comfortable and productive.

Open lines of communication

As well as clear changes to health and safety expectations, there has also been a shift in the relationship between HR, senior management and the workforce. Increased transparency and communication have been vital throughout lockdown, and this should not be forgotten as we return to the office.

An environment where all employees feel empowered and informed will be a clear differentiator for attracting, as well as retaining, talent in 2021. Organisations are becoming increasingly measured by their ability to communicate and build relationships with their employees digitally.

This need for digital transparency is driving new demand for smart building technologies, such as mobile apps that enable workers access to timely safety information, hot-desk flexible workspace schedules, and other digital workplace services for increasing employee engagement while minimising physical contact. As well as this, the clear presentation of actionable building data, such as occupancy or air quality, is an effective way of building employee engagement and trust, without draining HR personnel’s time.

For example, it would be very difficult to solely rely on an app on individual users’ phones to give a notification, so by combining with common area notification systems and screens, current guidelines and displays of crowd meter visuals can be quickly communicated. This level of access to clear, actionable data will become commonplace in the future office, ensuring employees do not feel neglected, isolated, or unengaged.

Effective use of resources

Businesses in every industry have been affected financially by the past 12 months. With a new working structure forced upon them, overheads and resources are being re-evaluated by every senior leader.

Equally, with a heightened focus on employee-wellbeing and facilitating a hybrid working model, funding for new initiatives such as individual laptops or phones for home-working, or more readily available employee support will likely need to be pulled from other areas. Offices must be efficiently used in order to justify their continuation in the eyes of both management and the workforce. Energy efficiency and space optimisation are great, simple ways of doing this.

Modern office management technology allows HR teams to make operational decisions faster with access to real-time occupancy data and analytics. With these systems, management can quickly identify underutilised desks, offices, meeting rooms, and amenities for effective reallocation based on real data. This allows HR teams to change the layout of flexible vs. fixed desks to align with employee usage and the ever-changing headcount caused by a hybrid working approach. These solutions can also be used to identify sources of wasted energy, such as lighting and heating a barely used conference room - an added bonus to the wider organisation in the face of growing sustainability expectations from government, customers and stakeholders.

The office of the future

Going forward, the specifics of the return to the office will be highly individualised, depending on the business, its workforce and their shared priorities. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for HR teams to follow.

However, it is clear that the future of work is a hybrid model, underpinned by employee trust, empowerment, and accountability. Whilst providing these intangible assets has always been a responsibility of HR professionals, the implementation of smart building technology to facilitate them is most likely foreign to many in the industry. Therefore, simply investing financially in BMS is not enough. Organisations must form reliable partnerships with those who understand this technology, in the context of current and future challenges faced in workplace management.

By investing in the active creation of a smart, energy-efficient and connected office, HR teams can meet the new-found expectations of the modern workforce, attracting and retaining valuable talent, as well as satisfying wider business goals in the long-term.

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