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PROS
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PROS
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Though some believe the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down, just as many believe it will continue or even get worse. With that level of uncertainty, it’s difficult for businesses to keep their employees home indefinitely, Which is why many are planning at least a partial return to the office. The challenge is figuring out how to balance this return to the workplace with keeping employees safe.
Since there isn’t a modern precedent for this situation, executives and property managers are learning as they go and utilizing new tools as they become available. Aside from more general return-to-work tools, you can find effective help in a subset of facilities management tools, generally called space management.
Originally a tool for real estate property managers, space management software is essentially a broad tracking and planning solution. Unlike general asset management applications, however, these tools keep track of everything in and on a given property, which means they can handle a wide and complex array of information. From building floorplans to asset tagging and personnel information, a space management tool is designed to give a property manager a bird’s eye view of a given property. Usually, this can be anything from an office suite to an entire campus, and the tool should then allow the manager to drill down to whatever area needs tweaking.
The ability to handle a wide variety of data has made it fairly easy for space management vendors to add new features designed specifically to address pandemic-related issues. The primary focus for most being on how to maintain an effective employee workforce on-site while still keeping those people safe. Measures that managers will need to consider include establishing new maximum occupancy thresholds and finding ways to enforce them; maintaining minimum safe distances between employees while work is being performed; and developing, deploying, or at least integrating with some form of contact tracing.
Since this situation is so fluid, however, there’s little in the way of a common feature set among vendors. You’ll need to investigate each solution carefully and compare it with your back-to-work requirements so you can determine whether it’s right for your needs. Following the five steps below, you can not only map out your back-to-the-office requirements but also what your space management tool needs to be able to do in order to help. After that, check our vendor list of top players for capabilities that match.
This simply refers to figuring out how many people are currently allowed in your space, since those numbers will have likely changed from what they were before the pandemic. To find out what’s current, check local municipal websites for guidance information. For example, PCMag.com’s primary offices are in New York City, where the city government has posted a series of guidelines and documents like these to help companies return to work safely. Following these guidelines exactly is critical since many cities, including New York, are performing spot checks on companies returning to work to make sure employees stay safe.
Once you know how many people are allowed in your space, the next step is following your business workflows to figure out who needs to be in the office for work to get done. Some teams may function just fine from home, while others will benefit more from being together in a single space. Who those people are, when they should work together, and especially where they should gather are decisions that’ll be individual to every business. But you can’t move forward with space management without knowing the answers.
Once your employee threshold is set (remember, that’s who and when), you can build a map of your new office that adheres to safe social distancing. This is where space management tools can really shine as they can import CAD images of your office floor plan right down to the individual desk level. You then need to map where each employee works and make sure that no matter who is present, everyone maintains a proper safe distance.
Some companies will be able to handle this on a dynamic level by simply allowing employees to reserve time in the office, assigning them whatever desk spaces are empty and properly distanced. Once you hit maximum occupancy, the reservation system simply declines new requests. However, in standard offices, this approach probably won’t work very often in the short term. That’s because aside from maintaining a minimum safe distance from each other, most guidelines, including those from the CDC, also emphasize minimizing the areas and things employees can touch.
In other words, it’s better to keep Anne’s desk reserved only for Anne instead of cycling different staffers through it depending on the time of day or week. This is where executives will need to refer back to their workflow data. Who needs to be in the office working with Anne in order to make her effective? You’ll likely wind up creating shifts of employees and teams that can show up on-site together and giving them fixed space assignments. Fortunately, space management software can make that task much easier.
Even if you build completely fixed employee shifts, you’ll still need to implement a check-in process for employees coming through the door. Exactly what this process entails will depend on two primary factors: your local government requirements (if any) and gathering the data you need in order to track and maintain your social distancing plan.
Some space management tools will help with dedicated features, such as contact tracing. These might actually be built into the application. Others will rely on integrations, usually with third-party contact tracing or lobby-based access control systems.
Collaboration is a key reason businesses are heading back to the office. However, that means sharing more than just space. Meeting rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and waiting areas are just a few examples of shared space. Printers, physical files and file cabinets, voice over IP (VoIP) telephones, and specialized equipment—like a hospital crash cart or a retail store’s point of sale (POS) system—are examples of shared resources.
Part of your workflow analysis exercise must be understanding who needs access to space or equipment and when. You also need to have a plan for how to sanitize these shared resources once they’ve been used. With its ability to track assets, space management software can help with allocating both shared space and office assets. However, the sanitizing process will need to be separate. Fortunately, most local government safety guidelines will include information on how best to go about this step, so check there first and then work with your facilities team to work up the right kind of plan.
Simply establishing a list of personnel in a given office shift isn’t nearly enough when maintaining safe social distancing—especially not from the perspective of local safety guidelines. Most businesses will need to prove compliance before their town or city governments will allow them to reopen, so gathering the necessary data is unavoidable. Read your local guidelines to know the minimum data you need to collect and then work with your facilities managers to decide what additional data you might need above and beyond that threshold. The goal, after all, isn’t simply to reopen but to do so safely so you can protect both employees and their families.
The primary data points, of course, include always knowing who is working, when, and where. But the granularity of this data can vary. For example, do you need to know exactly who is in the office at any given time, or do you simply need a check-in sheet for who entered the building that morning? Do you need a map of desks and who should be sitting at them, or do you need a live picture of exactly who is sitting where at any given time?
Space management tools will gather data differently. Since analytics are important, this will become a key differentiator between vendors. While they’re not on par with full-on business intelligence (BI) tools, all these solutions offer some form of reporting and they should have an easy way to export that data, too.
The more advanced entries tout things like visual analytics, which are usually floor-plan-based, but far more than just a map. Depending on the vendor, you can use a floor plan to track employee presence, reallocate employees in groups (especially departments), and track “hot” areas through a variety of lenses, like employee count, task, and time slice.
An important point to consider here, however, is precisely how that data is going to be collected. The deeper and more advanced the metric you want to hit, the more technology you’ll need to apply. Most tools rely mainly on employees downloading an app to their smartphones, but some will require additional software or physical tokens, and those will need to be distributed and managed. Be sure to have your sales rep map all these options out for you before committing.
Most managers agree that much of the “new normal” we’re seeing in terms of work habits will likely remain permanent even after the pandemic fades. But does that mean the need for space management software will disappear? David Cocchiara, CEO of OfficeSpace Software, doesn’t think so.
“We did a fair amount of work adding new functionality at the height of the pandemic,” he says. That included adding support for shift planning and modifying the reservation system so it would work for hot desking. But Cocchiara viewed that as a positive long-term investment because as he puts it, “flexible seating will probably be how most employees will engage with the office going forward.”
Hybrid work scenarios will have employees working from home two or three days per week, possibly more, which means the company can’t maintain personal desks for workers that aren’t going to be there. That’s where a desk reservation system, like the ones offered by OfficeSpace and many of the other vendors listed below, become a must-have.
The trends Cocchiara has observed with his OfficeSpace customers break down hybrid work into three basic scenarios. “Many large companies are mandating a full return to the office, while another segment is making it all about real estate costs,” he says. “Those companies want to reduce their office real estate costs by 10%, 20%, or even 30% and they’ll worry about that first, employee acclimation second. We call them ‘Architects.'”
He then cites a group he calls the ‘Nomads.” These are companies that are also looking to save costs but are doing it based on employee culture, not property costs. They’re taking six months or more to see how employees take to hybrid work and then making decisions on how they’ll handle office space. Finally, there are the ‘Visionaries.’
“This group includes companies like Shopify,” says Cocchiara. “They’ve decided to go remote-only and are closing all their offices except for a few that they’ll use for meetings or short-term workspaces.”
No matter which of those groups your business fits into, some kind of space management platform will remain necessary going forward. You’ll also need to stay smart around things like shift planning and the thorny problem of employee monitoring for home workers.
But no matter the tool selected or the job performed, a key takeaway here, and a task you’ll need to address in every case, is data collection. To keep employees safe, these tools, especially those doing space management, must share appropriate data. So figuring out what that data is for your organization and then making sure all your tools are helping with collection and analysis is job one.
We’ve listed the top players in the space management arena below. Many of them provide data collection capabilities and other hybrid work functionality, but you’ll need to evaluate them carefully before purchasing.
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