Back to the Office: Global Lessons Learned from Australia's Property Managers
Best Practices to Help Landlords Navigate Office Reentry
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Introduction: Meet the New Reality
With mass vaccinations well underway and an end in sight to lockdowns and other restrictions on business activity, commercial property landlords in many countries are preparing to welcome back the highest number of office tenants for well over a year (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Office Reentry Plans Promising
Currently, when will all employees have access to the physical office?
At a time when operating an asset with health and safety in mind is a top priority, commercial property managers have an essential role to play. Essential responsibilities include facilitating office re-entry by helping landlords implement new technologies and systems, reconfiguring their properties to adapt to changing social behaviours and restoring a sense of community among building tenants.
In addition to devising strategies to smooth the return to work in the short-term, property managers are also being asked to identify and address some of the lasting impacts of the pandemic by landlords looking to future-proof their properties and mitigate risks resulting from similar events that could potentially emerge.
This collaborative article by CBRE Property Management and CBRE Research draws on the recent experiences of CBRE’s property management professionals in Australia – where many cities are well ahead of the global workplace mobility curve (see Figure 2) - to pinpoint the key learnings from office re-entries, with the aim of informing countries and regions that are at an earlier stage of this process. The article also explores some of the longer-term trends CBRE expects to emerge in property management as a consequence of COVID-19.
Figure 2: Workplace Mobility in Major Cities
1. Planning for Reentry
While individual occupiers have put in place their own return-to-workplace protocols, at the asset level the onus is on property managers to help landlords plan a safe return for their tenants. In Australia, while office attendance is still well below pre-pandemic levels, the country’s success in bringing the pandemic under control relatively quickly laid the foundation for swift reentry. As of March 2021, offices in New South Wales were 35% fully occupied, 50% partially occupied and 15% fully vacant1.
In terms of specific strategies and practical steps to facilitate reentry, social distancing in common areas and amenity spaces, screening processes, enhanced building ventilation and prominent signage reminding building users to comply with COVID-19 and local government safety protocols have emerged as standard practice in many markets and received considerable publicity over the past 12 months.
Contactless technology was regarded as a nice but not an essential feature pre-pandemic, but under the new normal, people have a heightened awareness of everything they touch, especially in the workplace.Touchless environments with features such as self-opening doors, contactless elevator buttons and even voice-activated vending machines can provide tenants with the necessary proof and surety of health and safety.
Visible Cleaning Processes
Recognizing the recent cleaning updates published by various global health organizations, CBRE believes landlords will continue to pursue visible cleaning and disinfection practices to assure occupants of workplace readiness. The mere sight of disinfection being performed in common areas can play an essential role in instilling trust in the building environment. This entails a shift away from the after-hours and behind the scenes practices of the past.
Elevators have emerged as a flash point for landlords planning an office return. With traditional first-come, first-served systems no longer regarded as safe or practical, landlords must find a way to balance the need for social distancing with potentially long queues and waiting times.This balance can be done through practical, low-cost steps such as opening stairwells, regular cleaning and disinfections and touch-free hand sanitizer. Additionally, landlords can consider technologies such as touchless buttons, cab purification fans and dispatching software that can limit the number of passengers using elevators at any one time. Property managers are also incorporating elevator reservation features into tenant experience platforms, enabling building occupants to reserve an elevator journey at a time of their choosing.
With tenants seeking stronger guarantees of health and safety in the building environment, pressure is mounting on landlords to provide a regular and detailed flow of information on these issues.Tenant communications should ideally commence before they re-enter the building and will increasingly require fine-grained detail to satisfy occupant demand for proof of hygiene and cleanliness. Landlords will be expected to provide information and evidence of cleaning processes, schedules and even the materials and substances used. This trend has also spread to the environmental realm, with tenants now requesting comprehensive information on aspects such as indoor air quality and recycling initiatives.
Other important elements of tenant communications may include real-time workplace status updates informing employees if they should come to the office or stay at home and smart workplace features enabling staff to book desks for the day. Tenant experience platforms and mobile apps, such as CBRE’s Host, can provide building occupants easy access to services and amenities in their space as well as the ability to receive communications about building practices and protocols.
In Australia, landlords of buildings with CBRE’s Host mobile application were able to communicate directly on health, safety, and wellbeing issues with their tenant community even while offices were at low capacity. The application’s polling function was used to identify priorities and features deemed necessary by building occupants to facilitate a safe return to the office. Tenants will continue to expect real-time workplace status updates on health, safety and wellbeing issues along with digital features like contactless reservations.
2. Limited Occupancy: Starting to Return
Ensure a smooth transition back by restoring a sense of community, helping with building access, engaging tenants and accommodating flexible schedules.
Restoring the Connection
While a prolonged period of remote-working has enabled employees to spend more time with family, sharpen their health and fitness and get more focused work done, tenants have found that their people miss face-to-face interaction with colleagues and the camaraderie of the office environment.
This issue can be addressed by restoring employees’ connection with their workplace. Property managers have a role to play in this regard by organizing community events such as free lunches and fitness classes in common or designated areas of the building, or potentially in adjacent public space, in compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols.
With many staff choosing to remain at home for the time being or work remotely more frequently, these occasions will need to be virtually inclusive to ensure tenants still feel that community connection.
Enticing Tenants Back
In addition to facilitating social interaction, CBRE believes landlords must take practical steps to entice tenants back to the office and enhance its appeal as a location where employees want to spend most of their day and make it a place they really want to be.These steps include providing ‘return to the office’ gifts for employees, helping with office access and holding workshops on useful topics such as tips on hosting successful online meetings.
Tenant Engagement and ExpectationsLandlords are advised to monitor tenant engagement in programmes and activities designed to entice tenants back to the office and adjust their offering accordingly. Data from CBRE’s Host platform show certain offerings are more popular than others. These trends may vary across different cultures and geographies.
Figure 3: Highest-rated Return to the Office Activities (Global)
Figure 4: Highest-rated Return to the Office Activities (Australia)
Not Just Nine to Five
One of the most visible consequences of the increased adoption and frequency of remote-working has been many employees’ shift from a traditional full-time working schedule of 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM from Monday through Friday to a more flexible regimen.
Welcome tenants back with ‘return to the office’ gifts for employees, updated building access and workshops on topics useful to a distributed workforce.
3. Post-pandemic PrioritiesHeightened expectations around flexible space, holistic wellness, smart buildings and sustainability are expected to remain post-pandemic.
As the return to the office continues, thoughts are also turning to some of the longer lasting impacts of the pandemic on asset management and measures landlords can take to ensure their properties meet tenants’ permanently elevated expectations around hygiene, wellbeing, and security.
Figure 5: Most In-demand Building Attributes in Future
CBRE Property Management’s ongoing discussions with landlords in Australia have uncovered a number of key priorities including, but not limited to, the following:
Flexible Space on Demand
With companies likely to offer their employees greater choice in where they work, this may lead to the emergence of hub and spoke office models and a need for flexible space on demand in a wider range of geographic locations.
Savvy landlords are exploring the potential to build out flexible office space within existing properties such as shopping malls, health facilities and education hubs that provide parking, amenities and other supporting infrastructure to smooth tenants’ employees' working day.
Lockdowns and other restrictions on social and business activity have had a marked effect on mental health, with the impacts of limited social interactions, long-periods spent indoors, and fear of the virus expected to linger long after the pandemic has subsided.
Smarter Office Buildings
While many office buildings are already equipped with an array of automation and sensor technologies, CBRE expects the pandemic to hasten the development of fully intelligent buildings with integrated and connected systems, rather than stand-alone features.
In addition to strengthening their messaging on health and safety issues, landlords will increasingly be expected to provide tenants with a constant stream of information related to the environmental performance of their properties.
Tenants' shift to a hybrid of remote and office working has increased their reliance upon technology. Amid heightened concerns over safety and security in general, companies are demanding greater protection of computer systems and networks within the buildings where they operate in
Tenants' shift to a hybrid of remote and office working has increased their reliance upon technology. Amid heightened concerns over safety and security in general, companies are demanding greater protection of computer systems and networks within the buildings where they operate.
Conclusion: A Long-Term Campaign
The experiences of CBRE’s Property Management team in Australia underline that there are no quick fixes or shortcuts for office re-entry. The return to work requires a sustained effort over a prolonged period of time and must have an overarching focus on building confidence among tenants that the building they are coming back to is safe and secure.
By facilitating a positive return to work experience for all building occupants and taking steps now to address the longer lasting impacts of the pandemic, landlords will earn the loyalty of their tenants and ensure their assets remain competitive.