There are valuable lessons to be learned from how organisations around the world are managing their return to the office in a COVID19 conscious manner. Businesses must ensure the health and safety of their employees whilst redefining their workplace strategy to reflect the changes that the pandemic has brought upon the landscape of work.
Here's how other countries have responded to COVID19 in their return to work strategy and approaches European and American organisations can learn from.
Why should we look at returning to work on an international scale?
The impact of COVID19 has never been ubiquitous country to country as it spread. The EMEA region was hit harder and now, almost a year on with new variants and inconsistent Government policies, we’re left watching as other countries return to some form of ‘normality’.
During the first lockdown in the Spring of 2020 when working from home became mandatory for many, there was vast speculation regarding the value and purpose of the office. This was reflected by employee behaviour in the UK, with 66% fewer people travelling into the office than in January 2020.
However, as the pandemic set in, mindsets shifted and cracks began to emerge in working from home arrangements. Employees struggled with motivation, work life balance and socialisation.
Data shows that in the UK’s latest lockdown 17% more people are risking to make the journey in to the office, than in spring 2020; and this is not an isolated case*.
By September 2020, figures showed that the APAC region was well on the way to recovery. Some regions of China reported 90%+ occupancy and Hong Kong reached 60-70%, whilst European cities such as London and Amsterdam had stagnated at 20-30%.
Based on this data, Colliers are confident that the offices will remain at the heart of organisations, but in order to remain competitive teams should devise strategies in which remote work exists as a complementary and natural extension of the office.
The question we need to be asking ourselves when we look at the success of APAC regions, is what have they done that we can emulate?
Japan - invest in remote work technology
In September 2020 Tokyo offices were 40-50% occupied. This may be lower than some countries in the region, but the difference is due to organisations striving to meet the guidance of the Keidanren Business Federation, which recommends that organisations provide 16m square metres of space per person, a 30% increase.
With tight limitations on space in place, Japanese businesses invested heavily in remote work technologies compared to their neighbouring countries. The success of these policies can be seen in their economic recovery achieving 22.9% growth in Q3 of 2020 following a 29.2% contraction in Q2 as the pandemic hit.
Singapore - employees must work at least 50% remotely
On September 28th 2020, the Singaporean Government deemed it safe for employees to return to the office, given they followed strict protocols. Office occupancy was capped at 50% and organisations needed to ensure that they adopted rotation based working; and employees were required to work at least half their hours from home.
New Zealand - up to 50% back in the office
Above all others New Zealand successfully navigated the pandemic, contracting only 2246 cases. Their success is due to tight Governmental controls, closing borders early and enforcing strict lockdowns.
The introduction of an alert system, ranging from Level 1 - Prepare to Level 4 - Lockdown, clearly set out the legal requirements of both organisations and individuals to help fight the spread.
Due to the success of this system New Zealand is currently at Level 1, which means employees who want to, can return to the office. Auckland’s office occupancy now sits at 40-50%.
However, organisations are still required to follow stringent guidelines to ensure any cases are identified and the potential spread is minimised, which includes:
Remote & hybrid work: Organisations have been encouraged by the Government to find new ways to reduce the numbers of people required in the office, resulting in the introduction of:
Shift work patterns
Satellite offices in commuter towns
And in some cases, a complete shift to remote work
Personal hygiene: Companies are required to follow Government guidance on both cleaning and the provision of sanitary equipment
Contact tracing: Use of QR code system required to enter public transport and offices
Travel rules: Only pre-paid smart cards are to be used, to assist with both contact tracing and overall occupancy
Additional support: Those showing symptoms or those with chronic illnesses are supported throughout with an emphasis on personal wellbeing
The overarching takeaway from New Zealand’s success is that the continuation of safety measures is vital and systems need to be in place across the board in order to support these, including in the workplace.
What lessons can we learn?
Here are 3 key areas businesses should consider when navigating their return to work plans over the coming months.
Rotation based working and a phased approach
Looking at the success of Japan, New Zealand and Singapore, it is clear that the nature of work has changed and remote work forms part of a new blended way of working. So what do we do with the office?
Adopt blended work styles and hybrid workplace strategies which incorporate remote work as standard, such as Singapore’s occupancy cap and New Zealand’s shift patterns
Emulate Japan’s adoption of remote work technologies to facilitate productivity from home. In the UK, employees want to work 2-3 days from home, so they need to be supported
HR and business leaders need to consider employee roles, skills, preferences and people’s ability to work remotely when considering who to bring back in each phase
Leveraging workplace data assists in building typical profiles associated with certain roles and their requirements in terms of space and technology
Health and safety of employees
Top priority for all organisations is their employees’ wellbeing:
Contact tracing is vital - Booking and QR code identification systems allow for control over spaces’ use
Provision of personal safeguards must be paramount. Masks, sanitiser, regular cleaning schedules and employee screening
Social distancing must be implemented and reactive to the current threat level with policies regarding shift work, staggered start times and remote work clearly communicated
Monitoring indoor air quality to ensure that the building itself remains healthy and doesn’t pose a risk to employees
Workplace and employee analytics
Understanding who works for you, their situation and preferences is essential when considering what the future of your workplace will look like.
Understanding metrics such as commute, family composition and health will enable organisations to develop policies which are accommodating to all situations. Not everyone faces the same challenges throughout COVID19 and not everyone wants the same thing, so gauging employee mindset is key.
Occupancy sensors placed throughout offices serve a dual purpose. A birds eye view of your office's occupancy enables you to react decisively to unexpected spikes but also develop policies based around current threat levels as you understand your employees’ behaviour. Furthermore, understanding how your spaces are used provides a measure for the success of any hybrid policies introduced, allowing you to see what kind of work people are undertaking when they do venture into the office.
Successful return to work policies recognise change:
Employee expectations have shifted and safety is now paramount
Organisations need to step up and provide long term frameworks which include rotation based working and remote support for employees
100% occupancy is no longer the goal and workplace and real estate strategy needs to reflect this