September is usually synonymous with students young and old returning for the new academic year. In 2020, however, returning office workers are getting all the attention. As governments around the world try to strike the balance between kickstarting economies and safeguarding populations, workspaces have become one of the biggest sticking points.
In New York City, arguably the world’s workspace capital, it’s no different. Legislators and landlords are desperate to see tenants back in buildings. On the other hand, tenants are treading with understandable caution. Several major organizations, including Citigroup and Bank of America, have even halted their plans to return to the office until a vaccine has been found. The fact that, at the time of writing, in late July, only 10.6% of all occupiers have returned to the workplace in the New York metro area, suggests that many other tenants feel similarly nervous. Numbers in other major cities aren’t much better either, with Chicago at 18% occupancy. Los Angeles’ occupancy, despite being higher at 31%, actually dropped in recent weeks (again, at the time of writing).
The reality is that if landlords want to see tenants come back in greater numbers, they must demonstrate a real commitment to creating COVID-safe workspaces first. If they don’t, tenants may be lost for good. Practically, that means adapting and innovating, but in an industry not renowned for embracing change, where do landlords start?
The answer lies in utilizing technology.
There are, of course, many tech solutions that can assist in safeguarding tenants. Ensuring adequate fresh air supply through ventilation and air conditioning systems, measuring air quality and temperature and establishing timed arrivals are all examples — although they are not without their associated costs.
However, most effective and easiest to implement are workspace management systems, like our own. These provide numerous tools that owners desperately need to assure tenants, and safely and efficiently manage their return. In particular, three components are vital:
Density Management Technology
Social distancing has become a key measure in the fight against COVID-19, and guidelines from New York State and most others specify that office owners must modify or reconfigure work areas to ensure staff are six feet apart at all times.
Logistically speaking, this is an immense operational challenge. As people return to the office in greater and greater numbers, keeping people six feet apart at all times is extremely difficult. However, using density management technology that automatically monitors which parts of your building are at capacity, assesses where space is free elsewhere and then updates users in real time makes this process much simpler.
Tools like this can safeguard tenants by preventing overcrowding in particular areas, ensure users don’t waste time blindly searching for a desk and help building operators orchestrate space and problem-solve instantly.
Physical signage has its place, but only density management technology can help owners efficiently manage social distancing, keep tenants safe and the building moving.
Secondly, the use of contactless technology is vital.
Whether it’s parking, air conditioning controls, elevators or food ordering, eliminating as many physical touch points around a workplace as possible can help stop the surface spread of COVID-19. However, users still want to be able to navigate and manage their environment as seamlessly and efficiently as possible, creating a tricky balancing act for owners.
The solution is to provide each user with their own “remote control” — in the form of a workplace app — through which they can interact with the physical space around them. This workspace operating system minimizes the need for surface contact while providing users with full access to everything their workplace has to offer.
Finally, the importance of effective, real-time communications cannot be overstated. We have all seen how quickly COVID-19 can spread and how, in turn, speed of response is vital to keeping people safe.
Most states, including New York, require offices to develop and clearly publicize a safety plan to all tenants. Old methods of communication, such as elevator posters, notice boards in the lobby or dispensing information through a handful of tenant representatives, simply do not provide the speed and effectiveness of communication needed. Being able to communicate with all tenants through a single app, post information and send live updates is now absolutely essential.
The vast majority of today’s office-based workers consume need-to-know content through their phones, and this is undoubtedly the best means of sharing important workplace information with them. Workspace apps that provide a single communications hub ensure that tenants can keep up to date with the latest workplace guidance and protocols before, during and after their return to the office.
Each of these workspace management tools are, and will continue to be, vital to reassuring and safeguarding tenants. Owners that embrace these technologies will handle the return of tenants efficiently and safely, in turn elevating their reputation and that of their buildings. Those who fail to adapt and innovate will put themselves at risk of damaging both their reputation and their relationship with their tenants — possibly irreparably.
A Flexible Future
All of this, of course, assumes that tenants are in a position to return to existing buildings, renew leases and maintain the amount of space they previously occupied. With the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the business community still to be fully realized, landlords will need to be flexible and accommodating of changing tenant needs. Maintaining a static, inflexible product will fail to cater to the new landscape, while providing an adaptable product will prove immensely attractive in these uncertain times.
Owners must build flexibility into the long-term DNA of their buildings. Embracing technology that enables managing, scaling and marketing of flexible space easily and efficiently will allow landlords and operators to adapt quickly and effectively to the changing requirements of the tenant market.
As New York’s commercial real estate market continues to find its feet once more, landlords must seize this opportunity to innovate and embrace change.
In the short term, adopting workspace management tools will facilitate the safe and smooth return of tenants that landlords are so desperate for. However, owners must also see this as an opportunity to fundamentally shift their mindset to embracing technology and innovation for the longer term too.
As the fallout from COVID-19 continues and working practices continue to evolve and change, workspaces with a reputation for safety, efficiency and flexibility will prove immensely attractive to tenants. Embracing technology will prove critical to achieving all three.
spaceOS is a Dublin-, Warsaw- and Lisbon-based startup that has developed a tenant-facing mobile and web app combines features like community, booking, support, payments, food and beverage orders and a variety of services, compiled into one holistic SaaS product.