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The Return to Office: CoreNet Podcast with Mark Scullion

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, companies are trying to figure out when and how they will return to the office. In this podcast, Suddath® Chief Commercial Officer Mark Scullion talks to Tim Venable, Senior Vice President for CoreNet Global about how companies can expect to return to the office. Scullion talks about how innovative companies liked Suddath are making it easier to create a workspace focused on employee wellness, and gives insight into how the future of the office will use technology to its benefit and make employees feel more at ease. Read the highlights below or listen to the 13-minute conversation.

CoreNet: As America’s largest commercial mover, Suddath supports moves and ongoing facility needs for some of the most sophisticated companies in the nation. What were the biggest challenges organization faced when COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic?

Scullion: Well, as sophisticated as these companies certainly are, I don’t think many were prepared for the rapid adjustment to a remote workforce.

Whereas remote work was part of the mix with many of these large employers, wholesale shifts of the entire workforce to a remote work situation certainly taxed their IT infrastructure, their hardware, resources and certainly presented a unique challenge for the employees that were trying to stay safe but also be productive so, there’s a lot of logistics around moving an employee and all their essential business property to their home, so that they can be productive and I think a lot of it was in haste.

In some cases, the employees did it themselves, and they didn’t necessarily have the skillset. They weren’t necessarily prepared. For example, if you work on three monitors in the office and then move home to work on only a laptop screen, that’s not going to work. If employees printed quite a bit at the office but can’t print at home. That won’t work.

I think another challenge was people didn’t know how long they were going home to work. Maybe it could work without a second or third monitor for a couple days and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Over a longer period of time, if you don’t have the hardware, if you don’t have the connectivity, if you don’t have the peripheral devices to print and be optimally productive, it’s not going to work. I think that was the reality of many of our customers.

CoreNet: With employee experience being the focus for your team Mark, how did Suddath adjust its services to support customers and their employees during the pandemic?

S: One of the first things we did, was make ourselves available to support getting employees productive remotely. Moving computer equipment from the corporate office to the residence, assisting the employees, getting the hardware connected, powered up, assisting with connectivity testing and in some cases bringing furnishings to the home.

Again, as I stated early on, people didn’t know how long they were going home for so if you have an ergonomic chair in the office and you’re only going to be working from home for a few days, maybe you don’t need it. But two, three, four months working at home, if you have a bad back, you need your ergonomic chair. We did a lot of cleanup to assist our customers in getting employees equipped and furnished and productive from home.

As companies started to envision what the return to work was going to look like with social distancing requirements coming out, there was a lot of work aimed at thinning out workplaces; spreading the vacancy in an office out to where it’s more systematic. It’s every other cubicle instead of a vacant area across the floor so that people could have an appropriate amount of distance from each other when they return to work.

Also, removing chairs from meeting rooms so that the capacity in those rooms would drop consistent with the social distancing. A lot of that work happened in anticipation of employees coming back to work, but in many cases, even though we did socially distance the office as much as we could, a lot of those employers have not yet returned their employees back to work.

CoreNet: That leads into my next question. What trends are you seeing now that your customers are making these adjustments to bring back or prepare to bring back employees into the office?

S: I think companies are thinking about employee health and safety in a whole new way. There was a wellness movement underway with large employers already, but not near to the magnitude of where COVID-19 has taken it.

I think employee health and safety is going to be one of the primary priorities for these companies as the workforce returns. I mean, just our own company and the measures that we’ve taken to show our employees that we’re taking their health and safety seriously at our home office, it’s extraordinary to say the least. It’s simple things like guiding traffic through egress, enters and exits; it’s temperature scan devices, rules for the elevators, rules for the restrooms, governing the traffic flow on the stairwells. It’s a pretty intense shift for how the employees have been managed in the workplace before, but I think companies just absolutely have to do it because again health and safety is becoming a central priority instead of a secondary priority for companies.

CoreNet: Mark, my last question, one that I think everyone is thinking about these days; what does the future of the workplace look like?

S: It won’t be as extreme as what people are saying. Some say this is the end of the concentrated workplace. The pendulum always swings and because we’re in a health pandemic and because we don’t have a vaccine and because there’s still a whole lot of fear and concern around this crisis, the pendulum has swung towards mass amounts of employees will never return to the office and it’s going to be a completely virtual workforce.

I don’t think that is going to be the case. Many business leaders and real estate thought leaders recognize that. If you’re going to innovate, if you’re going to foster a strong company culture, you can’t necessarily do that with a remote workforce. We’re seeing an extreme shift today and I think the pendulum will swing not all the way back to where we were before the pandemic but it will certainly correct itself towards something that resembles where we were before the pandemic versus an all remote workforce.

I also think that companies are going to get smarter about how they manage their use of space. I think because of this crisis and the related focus on the corporate real estate strategy that companies are going to get smarter about understanding how their space is utilized on a given day. Is it utilized 60% on a given day or is it utilized at 35%? Room reservation systems already made their way into the workplace but censoring systems that would tell a real estate executive what are the dynamics of their occupancy on a given day, on the average week, over a longer period of time to kind of drive better, more accurate real estate decisions for the future.

Technology is absolutely going to help companies get smarter on how they use space and how much space they carry, and I also think that the square footage per employee is going to go up again. Ten years ago, the shift that was underway was we’ve got to get from 350 square-feet per employee down to 150 square-feet per employee. You saw all these low paneled cubicle configurations with high concentrations of people and it was all about density, density, density.

I think in this next chapter, there will be less focus on density and more focus on safety and more focus on the employee experience in this space. We might not see radically smaller spaces, but we may see things more spread out, less concentrated, more hoteling, and lesser permanent work spaces for the employees. We’re going to see more furnishings and interior like you might see in a home or like you might see in a hospitality or hotel environment to make the employees feel at ease, relaxed and comfortable at work versus the rigidity and crowded nature of what some of these offices had become prior to the crisis.

Some of that’s going to be driven from a health and safety standpoint, but I think part of it is also going to be driven by focus on the employee experience and prior to this, prior to this crisis, most of the CEO’s out there were thinking about digital transformation and employee experience. Those were the two big priorities for many of the business leaders and there was a broad recognition that the labor market, the talent market, was tightening significantly, and it was going to be an all-out war.

We’re going to get back to that and the workplace is an element of that talent attraction, talent engagement, talent retention strategy, so I think companies are going to want workplaces that are relaxed and comfortable to be in, productive, not as they once were but maybe just as large as they were because things need to spread out related to the health aspect of things.

CoreNet: Okay. Excellent insights there Mark and some fascinating predictions too. This has been great. Thanks so much for sharing these insights with CoreNet Global.

Get a complete guide to preparing your office post pandemic by downloading our Back to Work Planner now.