COVID Insights, Perspectives September 22, 2020

Preparing for What’s Next in the Face of Uncertainty

Workplace Strategy leader Lisa Pool explains how we can "rehearse" for multiple workplace futures using scenario planning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced half of all employees in the United States to work from home since the middle of March. This understandably has many organizations wondering how this will impact their workplace and their future real estate needs. In some cases, the unknowns can be paralyzing, as we don’t know when a vaccine will be brought to market or even if a future vaccine will allow us to return to normal. In a world filled with increasing uncertainty and unknowns, how do we productively plan for an uncertain future?

While we can’t predict the future, we can learn how to “rehearse” it to be more prepared. Scenario planning is strategic tool used by many organizations to design and plan for multiple futures of workplace and real estate in the face of uncertainty and change—and it is now more necessary than ever. Evaluating each scenario’s impact, cost and complexity provides a framework for decision making and modeling with concrete actions and outcomes. A road map can help address our burning questions, providing a sense of control and comfort.

Scenario planning helps us evaluate the impact, cost, and complexity of different possible futures.
Our extensive WFH employee survey revealed a few themes. Knowing the "wins" and pain points will help us tailor our approach to re-opening studios.

How will my employees work?

Now that we have discovered that employees can be productive working from home (WFH), especially on focused tasks, many employers are considering expanding WFH programs to allow continued flexibility.  But to understand how your employees will work, you must go deeper than a HR pulse survey. An extensive employee home working survey will offer a fuller picture—ideally capturing the work activities that are best suited for WFH versus those that require the support of the workplace,  as desired frequency of days in the office versus at home. This feedback can help you establish criteria for multiple scenarios and their impact on space needs. Don’t stop with one survey; longitudinal studies will also allow you to evaluate trends, signs of WFH fatigue, and shifting attitudes based on changing conditions.

Survey results can also help you build a new Remote Work Program. Many organizations that previously resisted remote work for a wide variety of reasons now see a future where it is possible. In a recent PwC survey, 54% of CFOs responded that they planned to make remote work a permanent option for roles allowing it. Kate Lister of Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work. Lister predicts the longer people are required to work at home, the more likely WFH will continue post COVID.  Setting up a program that looks strategically at roles and activities that are effective from home, along with the policies for an equitable hybrid remote and in-person workplace, can ensure readiness for the transition.

So, what are the burning questions we as workplace planners hear the most?


What kind of space will I need?

Employee feedback in hand, you can turn your attention to real estate. For large companies with multiple sites and portfolios, this is a perfect time to refresh your workplace and design guidelines. As more employees do heads-down work at home, you may need to decrease space for focused work and revamp your collaboration spaces to better suit the needs of employees when they come to the office to connect. From a design standpoint, strategies, materials, and systems for a healthy and safe environment may need to be upgraded. Similarly, technology standards and provisions should be evaluated to support an enhanced employee experience.

For a presentation on the reimagined workplace, our London studio examined the "why" behind the workplace.

How much space will I need?

When REI put their brand-new headquarters up for sale before event moving in, and other companies made similar pivots, many collectively wondered about how much space they actually needed. Assessing your portfolio now is a prudent step to ensure you do not make any knee-jerk decisions. With a data-driven approach based on employee surveys and an assessment of new workplace space requirements, you can model multiple scenarios quickly across the portfolio, campus, or a building to understand how your real estate may respond. Considerations for locations, changing lease terms, and commutes play a factor in both near- and long-term decision making.

Whatever the scenario, it's important to check in with employees to make sure they are feeling supported.
Photo courtesy of Lori Day

How can I support my people?

The base tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—physiological and safety needs—are no longer taken for granted in this time. Now more than ever, employees need to know you have a plan that addresses their health and safety first and foremost, in addition to a productive engaging workplace.

Provide clear communication about what steps you are taking to ensure a safe workplace, and support their needs to be effective and productive as well. In many cases, this means an enhanced focus on well-being. Check in with employees frequently to see how they are doing, use survey results to identify where additional support, coaching and training might be needed. For long-term support, develop a change management strategy to ensure the right messaging, communications, and training is in place to guide employees through the phases of the pandemic. Support managers and leaders to ensure coaching and mentorship continues and that professional development does not suffer from increased WFH and post-COVID hybrid working.

While many organizations are taking a wait-and-see approach to workplace scenario planning, there are important steps you can take now to provide some certainty in this time of uncertainty. Once you have considered a range of possibilities, designing a resilient plan to adapt to whatever is next will bring sound solutions.