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Virus outbreak shakes up offices

Dieter Kursietis

The post-COVID-19 workplace will be very different from the workplaces that went before. Dieter Kursietis, Consulting Director, Gensler – a global architecture, design, and consulting firm – gives return-to-work insights for Hong Kong employers based on Gensler’s new research report, “Back to the Office.”

Why won’t the workplace be the same post-pandemic?
In Hong Kong, there is a noticeably raised consciousness of workplace hygiene and behaviours, including how staff and visitors access the workplace (temperature screening, hand sanitiser at key circulation nodes, etc) to create a safe “bubble”, and increased cleaning regimes.

One positive impact for Hong Kong arising from the pandemic is that there is more trust between management and staff. This is the bigger workplace story for the city. Pre-COVID-19, there was this idea that “if I am not at my desk, my manager doesn’t think I’m doing my job”. We are now hearing that companies and individuals realise that working from home can be productive and satisfying (although not being home-based all the time). The new attitude in the workplace will find employees understanding the importance of collaboration and socialising.

What do clients tell you their main concerns are?
In Hong Kong, and across the Asia-Pacific, our clients’ foremost concern is the health and safety of their staff, their customers and their collaborators. Many firms and office-building managers in Hong Kong have already addressed the immediate concerns of access and in-office hygiene, and are now starting to look ahead.

Based on the negative financial impacts of the pandemic and Hong Kong’s very expensive office space, many organisations are now looking at how home working can be used to reduce real-estate portfolios. They’re also considering how to reshape the workplace away from a sea of workstations in order to better support collaboration when people do come to the office.

What are the most immediate actions a company should implement as staff come back to the office?
First, continue to communicate with your staff and reinforce safe and hygienic behaviours…For example, put up signage reminding people to sit apart when possible, use meeting rooms to half capacity, to wash their hands frequently, and so on.

Second, gradually ramp up the number of people coming into the office. Schedule home working versus office working. Encourage virtual over physical meetings for both internal and external engagement.

Third, start to plan – and budget - to permanently integrate the better-hygiene operations.

And in the longer term?
For Gensler, solutions need to be catered to the organisation’s aspired-for ways of working, work culture, and operational model. Determining these solutions is best based on research and engagement.

Again, there are two levels. The first is managing a healthy and safe environment, and encouraging the associated behaviours. Examples could be resizing building entrances and floor lobbies to manage social distancing in queues with embedded temperature screening; increasing contactless thresholds in elevators, toilets, etc, and improving air filtration, circulation and ventilation systems.

The second, if the company’s drive is to reduce space, is to respond smartly to the opportunity while supporting your staff. It is about more than introducing desk sharing: make the office a destination. We know from Gensler’s Work from Home Survey and anecdotally from different Asian clients that staff who are most satisfied do not work from home 100% of the time - staff want to come to the office to collaborate or simply for the social bonds with their colleagues. Workplaces should be designed attractively and have a diverse mix of work settings to enable teams and individuals to select the best setting for their task or preference.

Do you believe workplaces can become better places for everyone?
Yes. At Gensler, we are trying to look optimistically at reimagining the future wherein the workplace supports healthy, safe and productive working every day. The increased awareness of these matters means employees will be demanding a healthy working environment and companies will respond. We know that, in Hong Kong, managers and staff have learned to trust each other more, which will shift the focus from presentee-ism to productivity, and in turn will enable workplaces that are more diverse to support staff better.

Related link
Gensler

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