With companies making significant efforts to get back to normal after they’ve dealt with the impact of COVID-19, the next step for them is to set up a plan for their employees to return to the office. But as experts say and companies confirm, this return will be a gradual one, as the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic is still unpredictable. The main focus now for both landlords and their corporate clients is to ensure a safe working environment by implementing measures and clear protocols for how everything in the office operates while managing health and safety risks for employees. BR sat down with landlords and companies and found out how they were preparing for their employees’ return to the office.
By Anda Sebesi
Reopening office buildings involves a rethinking of the daily experience and setting clear protocols for how everything in the office operates while managing health and safety risks for employees. How the return to work is managed will be critical for employee health and well-being but also for the confidence they have in their employers and landlords, according to the latest data from CBRE, the real estate consultancy market.
A three-stage reopening
It is obvious that in a context dominated by uncertainty and caution, the return to work must be a gradual process, as experts say.
“Our experience supporting clients in Asia suggests that reopening workplaces and commercial establishments is not so straightforward. From an occupier’s perspective, we encourage the reopening of workplaces to be considered in three stages: planning for the return, bringing employees back to work, and most importantly, ongoing management and workplace evolution,” says Tudor Ionescu, Head of Advisory & Transaction, Office, CBRE Romania (main photo – left).
In Bucharest, the modern office stock is estimated at 3.27 million sqm, a total space where about 330,000 – 400,000 employees are working, according to CBRE Research data. Most of this space, around 28 percent, is located in the north of Bucharest, in the vicinity of the Aurel Vlaicu and Pipera metro stations, 14 percent is in the Aviatorilor and Victoriei Square metro stations area, while another 13 percent in the centre-west area of Bucharest. In Timisoara, the modern office space stock is estimated at 250,000 sqm, while Cluj-Napoca’s is around 320,000 sqm.
A gradual return to work, with cleaning policies and procedures, will help employees feel safe, therefore a clean desk policy, whether that desk is assigned or unassigned, will be essential. In the short-term, seating could be managed in a rotational manner so not only will remote work be supported and trusted by more organisations in the future, but it may be employed as a strategy leading to profound workplace transformation.
“We’re seeing people setting a high bar in terms of their own criteria for going back to work, which is normal in a health risk situation. Every aspect of office life will be scrutinised: getting there safely on public transportation, making it through the lobby, the desk routine, meeting setup, navigating once-mundane routines such as going to the restroom, getting coffee and lunch. A simple question like how to get a cup of coffee will imply a new routine. Personal discipline will be of the utmost importance,” added Tudor Ionescu.
Both occupiers and landlords should give serious consideration to new levels of service, materials and activities needed to facilitate a return to the workplace. Examples of areas that may require advanced sourcing activities and increased funding include enhanced cleaning, introduction of new access protocols (e.g. temperature screening), increased supplies of products such as hand sanitizers and wipes, but also a reconfiguration of work environments and the associated technology and equipment, such as touchless technologies. Many tenants will choose to work in shifts and alternate flexible hours so the building may be fully operational for longer periods of time, meaning that the operational costs of buildings are expected to raise.
“Property managers have a crucial role to play in enhancing safety, creating a trustworthy but also pleasant work environment, while also keeping everything under control, such as resources, long term plans, and costs. At this stage the focus is on services like enhanced cleaning and building operations, as health and safety are top priorities both for tenants and landlords. In the medium term however, we expect the focus to be around new technologies, such as touchless entry, energy efficiency tools, automated maintenance software or off-site security solutions,” said Luiza Moraru, Head of Property Management, CEE, CBRE (main photo – right).
Technology can mitigate some concerns. Before COVID, tenants and landlords were beginning to track office usage with sensors that determined whether the space was being occupied efficiently. Post-COVID, that same technology can identify which heavily trafficked areas need deep cleaning, where density is too high, and which workstations are both free and sanitized.
According to CBRE, we will also witness a preference for buildings with “healthy” credentials related to indoor air quality and ventilation, as fresh air reduces the spread of airborne germs. In the longer term, health and wellness will play a more prominent role in informing building design. Currently, buildings are required to comply with a minimum 20 percent fresh air intake, while some choose to exceed this requirement by going up to 30 percent.
According to the Romania Flash Call organised in April by real estate consultancy company CBRE, the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the real estate market will be felt during the second quarter of the year, while in the medium and long term the focus will be on health and safety measures as well as on technology.
“We expect operating hours of office buildings to be longer going forward. Many tenants will choose to work in shifts as well or have flexible hours. As such, building operational costs are expected to rise at a time when cost efficiencies are essential,” Moraru said.
While the focus on operational costs will remain relevant for occupiers in the next couple of years, property managers will need to come up with creative solutions to incorporate the Health & Safety costs in their current budgets and to make the best use of this opportunity to create an emotional bond between occupiers and their workplace, according to CBRE. The consultancy firm is working on redefining common areas and their servicing by creating clear traffic corridors, specific health and safety measures such as UV filters, door handle covers, lifts buttons protections, HVAC servicing, and natural ventilation.As schools in Romania won’t reopen until September, we will continue to witness a dominance of remote and flexible working in the next few months, experts warn.
“Trends like de-densifying, flexible hours, extended office hours, rearranging office space, and health and safety measures are on everyone’s agenda,” says Razvan Iorgu, managing director at CBRE Romania.
Work from home: a double-edged sword
According to the Working from Home study on 1,200 employees in Romania, the CEE and the SEE regions, conducted by CBRE Research, the things respondents miss most are communicating with colleagues, the clear separation between work and leisure time, and seeing others working around them.
The average share of people working from home is 3.9 percent of the total employment volume, meaning about 9 million employees, considering the Eurostat data for the countries belonging to the CEE & SEE regions that took part in the CBRE Research survey. The country with the largest share of people who are used to with working from home is Austria, with 9.9 percent from total employed individual, in contrast with countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, where there are rates of 0.5 percent and 0.8 percent respectively.
“It is interesting to notice that even though Austria has the largest share of people who were familiarised with working from home before the COVID-19 situation, almost 80 percent of respondents were confronted with the lack of a work-life balance. The office space as we know it will be more clearly envisioned as a separator of work and personal life and the place to meet with colleagues and business partners, as these two aspects were the ones respondents missed the most. A greater prevalence of working from home policies does not translate into occupiers taking up less space,” explained Andreas Ridder, managing director for CEE at CBRE.
The same study says that in Romania, working from home will not be an option for 33 percent of respondents versus the 38 percent who are intending to ask their companies to allow them to work from home at least once a week. According to official data, our country has the smallest rate of working from home, below 1 percent.
“The option to work from home for more employees might challenge companies to reshape the workplace in order to make it more attractive and efficiently blending new concepts such as hot-desking and activity-based working, making pre-lockdown layout trends become history. We expect the demand for office reconfigurations to grow in the next 12 to 24 months considering the new legislation and the physical presence at the office,” said Iorgu of CBRE.
With an eye on retail…
The same rule applies for the retail sector, where property managers play a vital role going forward in taking the right steps to slowly rebuild consumer trust and give shopping centers back to the clients. Hence, managers have already implemented safety and social distancing measures while not infringing upon the feeling of freedom and excitement, and this will redefine all areas of the malls.
“The way we do marketing will be fundamentally changed as we will redefine the customer journey, both physical and digital. The level of technology in shopping centres has to increase with a wide range of tools available. Operations will change with the integration of technology and new health & safety standards,” says Moraru.
She adds that those malls that communicated even during the lockdown and adapted their communication to the new normal gained more trust from the public. “However, the consumption habits built over the last months don’t have to be ignored or minimised. Malls have to deliver messages where the consumer is now used to get them, meaning online and on social media,” Moraru argues.
On similar lines, Razvan Marincoi, marketing director for retail & office at CBRE Romania, says that the performance of social media messaging is based on three indicators: relevance, features, and empathy. “The understanding of the level of empathy the user perceives makes the difference, especially in highly emotional contexts,” he says.
As for warehouses, the CBRE Romania Flash Call found that stocking and transport (midstream companies) have been privileged during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Imagine warehouses being like Netflix: production is rather limited, cinemas are closed, but we are all watching Netflix. Ecommerce has filled up the void generated by traditional retail being closed through logistics, thus providing a strong foundation for the long-term evolution of the sector. In principle, the perspectives for this sector are optimistic going further, yet distinctions between the future of each industry need to be made, as the future will not be the same for everyone,” Iorgu stated.