March 11, 2020 seemed like any other Wednesday – discussing with coworkers the possibility of a late in the day jam session at the whiteboard before hanging out, or discussing weekend plans like seeing a movie or a concert.  My how things have changed. Social distancing has replaced social activities. Smiles are hidden in face masks. On a potentially positive note, wardrobe decisions are easier if pajamas are always involved.

Today officially marks the one year anniversary since CDC declared the COVID-19 pandemic and almost immediately the workforce responded. Employees began working from home, in-person conversations with colleagues came to a sudden pause and offices shut their doors. Early on during the pandemic, we launched the Global Workplace Reopening Tracker to help organizations keep a tab on what’s happening and to plan for a safe re-entry and successful rebound. For 12 months, we’ve tracked when, where and how often workspaces were being used, based on actual space utilization data and activity levels from various FM:Systems solutions that track over 3 billion square feet across 80 countries. Needless to say, this gave our team a lot of interesting insights and analysis.

 

workplace utilization 2021 - A Year in Review: COVID-19’s Impact on the Workplace

 

What 365 Days of Workplace Utilization Data Taught Us

 

As the hybrid workplace model went mainstream and productivity soared at home, businesses of all sizes were tasked with planning for the second largest cost of organizations: real estate (i.e., the first being employees). In fact, the workplace utilization rate crashed to as low as 4% at the end of March 2020, with unused buildings and conference rooms burning a hole through pockets. And while we are now seeing steady double digit utilization in most countries, including essential workers in some cases, here’s what we discovered:

 

1 ) Newton’s Laws at work in a Pandemic: From a macro viewpoint over the duration of the pandemic, we have seen again and again the very short timelines between cause and effect – the near real-time fluidity of the workforce bouncing between remote work and back in the office to some degree. If a new variant crops up, things are shut down and employees are remote again. 

 

2 ) Employees are ready to go back to the office, when deemed safe by authorities: Comparing the first three weeks of February 2021 vs. the prior three weeks, there was an increase in Canada, Australia, Israel and Italy. Easing of some restrictions in these countries most likely led to the increased utilization as well as a growing comfort resulting from more people getting vaccinated.

 

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Utilization Rates between February 2020 – February 2021

 

3 ) The workplace is being redesigned for more “we spaces:” From the data and conversations with clients, organizations indicate they will mostly be using their workplaces for “we spaces” – where employees can book a desk or meeting room in advance of commuting, to do work that is best done in-person together (e.g., brainstorming, kick-off meetings, onboarding, etc.). At the same time, individual desks and focused “me spaces” will continue to take place from home for the better part of 2021 and beyond.  To that end, our data shows an increase in interdepartmental desk usage.. This could be for employees who come in to work together, but want to stay for the day to finish on their own. This could also indicate some are frankly ready to be out of their homes and back in the office full-time.

 

4 ) Asia started the year fast, slowed down, and is climbing back up:  The Asia-Pac region started the year on an upswing, as evidence both in our discussions with clients, as well as the data reported.  When we saw a dip overall in the region in February we were reminded that the region is influenced by Chinese New Year, which affects attendance even in a typical scenario.  This fact, coupled with vaccine delays in some locales, seems like a plausible reason for the change.  We will continue to watch the data over the next few weeks to see how workplace reentry is embraced in Asia Pacific countries, as many predict the region’s culture, united pandemic response and tech boom have left it better prepared for an economic recovery which starts in the office.

 

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Utilization Rates between February 2020 – February 2021

 

 

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Looking Ahead at the New Agile Workplace

Thanks to a communication infrastructure which proved to be very resilient in most developed countries, the productivity of the workforce in many industries remained constant, giving rise to the reality of a concept which was only a rumor in the past: the agile workforce. While there were some hiccups in the early days, we are not seeing the same intermittent outages today on Zoom, Teams or your tool of choice. Our communication infrastructure actually fared far better than, for example, the energy grid in Texas where low temperatures drove demand up and the system failed. Had our communication infrastructure and bandwidth failed in a similar way, we’d have a very different view on this great work from home experiment.

With this new agile workforce and the near real-time decision whether to go into the office on a given day, we imagine there will be a strong need for AI solutions that allow organizations to forecast utilization and better predict staff location. This type of workplace solution will allow businesses to understand space usage alongside impact to supplies, cleaning services and other company benefits like food – servicing today’s needs as well as the office of the future. While COVID will end at some point, smart leaders can develop a strategy using tools like these which are aimed at the future while accommodating the present.

Here at FM:Systems, while it was interesting to see data from our Global Tracker play out, ultimately our mission from the start was clear: To help more organizations efficiently and confidently prepare for a safe return to work while also creating the ideal environment for every one of their employees to thrive. Even today’s agile one.

 

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