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Return to work: A guide for government

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, uncertainty hovers. As state and local governments plan for their COVID-19 return to work in the coming months, major short term, and long term, questions remain.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, uncertainty hovers. Testing continues to be limited, while a vaccine may be more than a year away. As state and local governments plan for their COVID-19 return to work in the coming months, major questions remain: in the short term, how do you prepare for the gradual return of employees to your office spaces? And, in the long term, how will you manage your real estate and workplaces and serve your mission when government budgets are strained by reduced tax revenues and rising expenses for healthcare and other critical constituent services?

Many U.S. communities are flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases, thanks to decisive leadership and the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers and other state and local government employees. Yet, the impacts of the novel coronavirus will be profound and long-lasting, affecting every sector of the economy and segment of our society.  

Despite some relief from the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, state and local governments are facing severe impacts of the pandemic response. Many state governments anticipate tax revenue declines of as much as 40% from the massive spike in unemployment and resulting loss of sales, property and income tax revenues. Some have delayed tax deadlines or expanded unemployment insurance. Most have implemented supplemental appropriations or are transferring general revenue funds to fund public health agencies and emergency assistance for those in need.

The bottom line? Drastically reduced short-term and long-term funding for ongoing operations and constituent services—not just this fiscal year, but for the next several years.

A holistic approach to re-entering your workspace

Prepare your workspace and your people to safely and efficiently resume operations


State and local governments will be pressed to find new ways to deliver services.

Advancing beyond “business as usual”

To successfully return to work in the era of COVID-19, “business as usual” will not be an option. To overcome budgetary constraints as local economies recover, state and local governments will be pressed to find new ways to deliver services and will need to develop more agile and resilient organizational strategies.

With lower tax revenues and only limited ability to increase user fees, governments will have re-imagine how they deliver essential services and innovate to develop cost effective strategies do more with less. Given sustained budget constraints, your organization will need to consider non-traditional means of revenue generation and economic development.

Concurrently, in the near term you’ll need to determine how best to incorporate social distancing strategies into your workplace—without enlarging your real estate footprint. You’ll need to consider new staffing and service delivery models; health-focused standard operating procedures (SOPs); smart building technologies; and digital workplace tools that enable virtual collaboration, improve productivity and support safe work environments. And, in the long term, you’ll need to rethink the size and configuration of your real estate.

Incorporate social distancing strategies into your workplace—without enlarging your real estate footprint.

Short-term planning: steps to take now

During this period of self-isolation, almost all government workers have been working from home—with the notable exception of those on the front lines fighting the virus. For many, shelter-in-place orders brought their first sustained experience with telework and came with a steep learning curve for working effectively with others using virtual technologies. When your organization considers a gradual return to work, you’ll need to take several immediate actions to prepare your physical workspaces and establish new protocols to reduce the risk of infection and respond quickly if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19.

The crucial need for safety-driven changes to the workplace will come at a time of severe budgetary contraction. As a result, state and local governments will be challenged to find ways to cost-effectively adjust their workplaces to address these changing needs. For example, the trend over the last 20 years—in both the public and private sectors—has been to densify workstations and shrink the real estate footprint. Further, to foster collaboration, most organizations have increased the number of shared meeting spaces in their workplaces. Now, your organization will need to de-densify desks to provide more separation between people, which will require adjusting the space’s capacity, seating plan and layout.  

Clearly, if your entire workforce returned to the office under these conditions, you would require more workspace. Lacking the time or budget to acquire additional office space, thus enabling a safe office environment without increasing the need for space. Creating these policies may be complex— and will require rethinking the new employee needs at home and in the workplace as well as formal policies for office behaviors, safety and the scheduling of office resources.

Your organization will need to establish formal work policies to allow for teleworking or working onsite in shifts.

As you plan for the near-term return to the office, the following are key steps to consider:

Ensure the health and wellness of your employees and visitors

Before your workforce returns to the office, you must develop new SOPs and policies to increase safety, security, productivity and wellness. Then, you’ll need staff training to adjust to new office behaviors, communicate expectations and drive adherence to new protocols. New SOPs and policies will encompass a myriad of issues, including social distancing, use of protective gear, cleaning protocols and visitor screening protocols. And, you may need to engage your labor representatives to establish agreement on new standards and policies.

New procedures and policies will encompass social distancing, use of protective gear, cleaning protocols and visitor screening protocols.

Ensure that your buildings are safe, resilient and ready

Employees will, naturally, be highly sensitive to disinfection and protective protocols in their workplaces, including the availability of masks and gloves—and the importance of avoiding high-fives and handshakes. You’ll need to develop plans and procedures to confirm that buildings and spaces are safe for re-entry and will be safe for working, and also to communicate these changes to employees.

Increased janitorial support will be essential to ensure that conference rooms, supply rooms, cafeterias and shared amenities are disinfected after every use, and that bathrooms are continually cleaned. In aging buildings, you’ll need to monitor and manage air quality to reduce airborne risk. And, you’ll need SOPs in the event that an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Increased janitorial support will be essential to ensure that shared workspaces are disinfected after every use.

Another challenge will be to prevent back-to-back booking of shared spaces that require sanitizing after each use. You’ll need to collaborate with your IT team to adopt workplace technology to provide online scheduling for shared workspaces with built-in time allowances for sanitization in between bookings. And, today’s technologies can support many other aspects of real estate and facility management to help your organization thrive following the COVID-19 return to work.

Create and monitor effective guidelines and adjustments to your space

Even with a number of precautions in place to ensure the safety and health of staff and visitors, unforeseen issues will undoubtedly arise as space is re-occupied. Maintaining a safe workplace will  require a high level of on-site supervision and employee feedback, and a nimble mindset so your team can quickly modify and adopt policies and practices informed by actual workplace usage.

Addressing the long-term workplace

Long after the current crisis, dramatic budget shortfalls will require every governmental organization to become more agile, resilient and innovative. Moving forward, state and local governments will need to reengineer their work to do more with less and scale resources up or down in response to health crises, natural disasters, economic change or other disruptions that lead to unforeseen changes in constituent needs.

The evolution of post-pandemic government will require a holistic view of your people, workplaces and the technology you use to manage your workplaces and provide citizen services. The first step will be to examine lessons learned and new practices adopted during the pandemic and the early stages of returning to the workplace when the threat of the novel coronavirus remains high.

To thrive over the long term after the COVID-19 return-to-work phase, the following are key areas to consider:

Create a flexible, technology-driven service delivery model

In the face of severely constrained budgets and continuing public needs, you’ll need to creatively assess how best to leverage the core skills required to support your agency mission. One option to consider is the variable labor model, in which fulltime employees focus on delivery of complex core services, while variable labor provided by the private sector provides facility management, supply chain logistics, IT support, real estate management and other non-core functions.

Incorporating a variable workforce will help you meet constituent needs even if staff layoffs are necessary.

Variable labor models are a familiar practice in the private sector, providing flexibility without fixed overhead in times of economic uncertainty. While government at all levels typically relies upon a stable, fulltime workforce, incorporating a variable workforce that can shrink or grow in response to demand will help you meet constituent needs even if staff layoffs are necessary.

Additionally, the need to conserve staff resources while cost-effectively delivering services will likely drive a dramatic increase in web-based constituent services. Of course, public services such as healthcare, public safety and assisting those with limited technology access will always require face-to-face interaction. However, delivering services through the web offers the potential of reducing staffing requirements while adding convenience for constituents. Where direct human interaction is required, virtual collaborative technologies can provide a secure, cost-effective forum for service delivery even in the event of a future pandemic.

Adopt future-fit workplace and real estate strategies

Few state and local government workplaces will remain just as they were before the pandemic. Given the continuing need for social distancing and office disinfection in the absence of a vaccine, teleworking policies will be the most viable option for creating space within your current footprint. Technology tools will be essential to manage booking of unassigned desks and shared conference rooms, and to limit workplace occupancy to allow for social distancing. An easy-to-use mobile app, for instance, can help manage workspace use and sanitation activities, while also providing convenience and improving the employee experience.

Greater adoption of teleworking will help reduce your real estate footprint and occupancy costs, while increasing your organizational resilience. Also critical, flexible work policies accommodate the work/life balance that will help attract and retain the next generation of talent. However, teleworking succeeds best when supported by appropriate IT infrastructure and security, and consistently enforced workplace policies. And, your team members will likely require new technologies and training to be productive.

You’ll also need to rethink how your workplaces are managed and maintained. Through the variable labor model, working with a private sector facility management company can provide access to new tools and technologies that will drive savings and efficiency in building operations and management.

Again, technology can provide invaluable tools that integrate floorplans, seat assignments and shared space bookings, enabling efficient space management as well as rapid response to new COVID-19 cases in the workplace. With this level of coordination, your facility managers can quickly identify and notify affected coworkers and flag office space for cleaning protocols.

Coupled with unfortunate, yet likely required, workforce reductions, new workplace and facility management strategies will enable you to shrink your real estate footprint and reduce costs over time. Concurrently, these adaptations will help you improve organizational agility, while assuring employees that their workplaces are clean, effective and safe. By reducing overall real estate requirements, you’ll be positioned to redeploy surplus assets to generate income, provide affordable housing and solutions to other constituent needs, and foster economic development.

Create a digital workplace

During and long after your COVID-19 return-to-work phase, technology can help you address the competing demands of reducing costs, providing safe, productive workplaces and cost-effectively delivering constituent services. Today’s workplace and real estate technologies can support every aspect of these competing demands and enable your organization to thrive despite a challenging environment.

Numerous technology options support teleworking and web-based secure file-sharing and collaboration. An intelligent mobile app can streamline everyday office tasks, such as contactless food delivery, cleaning services and other facility requests, as well as room bookings backed by algorithms that automatically calculate social distancing requirements.

An intelligent mobile app can streamline everyday office tasks, including room bookings backed by algorithms that automatically calculate social distancing requirements.

By adopting smart building technology and wireless equipment sensors, you can continuously monitor and manage indoor air quality to support employee health, wellbeing and productivity. Smart building systems automatically self-adjust without the need for on-site engineers, improving building efficiency and reducing energy costs—contributing to reductions in overall real estate expenses.

In addition, occupancy planning tools can be used to efficiently manage workforce deployment across multiple sites. Using real-time WiFi login and security badge data, as well as data from heat and motion sensors, you can analyze space utilization activity to understand how employees are using their workplaces. And, you can easily monitor building activity to ensure that your offices don’t exceed post-pandemic capacity limits.

With the adoption of flexible workplace strategies incorporating teleworking and social distancing, you can use occupancy and space utilization data to anticipate future needs. Through predictive analytics, you can gain data-driven insights for right-sizing your real estate footprint—driving down real estate costs over time.

Adapting to the new normal

For state and local governments, the new normal of the COVID-19 return-to-work era will last into the indefinite future. While the virus is still a threat, state and local governments will need take to steps to help employees work safely while becoming adept at using workplace technologies to deliver public services.

In the long term, state and local government agencies must adopt innovative, integrated workforce and workplace strategies, while becoming more agile, resilient and cost-effective. Adaptation will require a holistic view of your organization, enabling you to evaluate the interrelationships between your people, the places they work, and the technologies they use to drive processes for optimally and flexibly providing citizen services. And, your organization also will need to address the lessons learned during the pandemic. By taking key steps today, you can begin to reimagine how best to serve the mission of government and thrive in the post-pandemic future.

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