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Reopening Government Offices After COVID-19 (Contributed)

State and local agencies face a host of challenges as they prepare to restart business. With the help of tech, knowing how to plan for short- and long-term needs, post pandemic, can make the difference.

by Kevin Wayer & Bob Hunt / June 5, 2020

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? 

Short-term planning

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 health and wellbeing protocols. The following are key steps to consider.

  • Prioritize the health and wellness of your employees and visitors. Government offices need new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies to increase safety, security and wellness. But putting the policies in place isn’t enough. You’ll also need staff training to adopt new office behaviors and drive adherence to new protocols, all while maintaining productivity in this new environment. New practices will encompass everything from social distancing and use of protective gear to cleaning and visitor screening protocols. And, you may need to engage your labor representatives to establish agreement on new standards and policies. 
  • 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. You’ll not only need plans and procedures to confirm that buildings and spaces are safe — and will remain safe — for the return to work, but these plans must be communicated to employees, so they are prepared for the changes and feel comfortable with re-entry. 

Increased janitorial support will be essential to ensure that meeting 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 should an employee be diagnosed with COVID-19.

Addressing the Long-Term Workplace

Long after the current crisis, state and local governments will need to re-engineer their work to do more with less and scale resources up or down in response to health crises, natural disasters or other disruptions that lead to unforeseen changes in constituent needs. The first step will be to examine lessons learned and new practices adopted during the pandemic and in the early stages of returning to the workplace. 

To thrive long 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 is the variable labor model, in which full-time employees focus on complex core services, while variable private-sector labor provides facility management, IT support, real estate management and other non-core functions. A familiar presence in the private sector, a variable workforce can shrink or grow in response to demand and help you meet constituent needs even if staff layoffs are necessary. 
  • Adopt future-fit workplace and real estate strategies. Given the continuing need for social distancing, teleworking will be the most viable option for creating space without expanding your footprint. However, teleworking succeeds best when supported by appropriate IT infrastructure and security, training, and consistently enforced workplace policies.  
  • Technology tools will be essential to manage booking of unassigned desks and shared conference rooms, and to limit workplace occupancy. An intelligent mobile app, for instance, can streamline everyday office tasks, such as contactless food delivery and cleaning service requests, as well as room bookings that automatically build in social distancing requirements and time for cleaning.
  • You’ll also need to rethink workplace management and maintenance. A private-sector facility management company providing variable labor can provide access to new tools and technologies that will drive savings and efficiency in your building operations. Digital tools can 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. 
  • 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 can 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 digital technologies can support every aspect of these competing demands and enable your organization to thrive despite a challenging environment. 
  • 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 Wi-Fi 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. Add predictive analytics to gain data-driven insights for right-sizing your real estate footprint — driving down real estate costs over time.
  • Create and monitor effective guidelines and adjustments to your space. 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. 

Adapting to the New Normal 

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. Adapting to the next normal 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 provide the services their citizens need. 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.

With close to 30 years at JLL, Kevin Wayer is the president of Public Sector and Higher Education, based in Washington, D.C. He joined the firm in June 1992, and in 1999, he co-founded and built JLL’s government specialty to provide real estate portfolio and occupancy strategy, financing, development, facilities management and transaction services to public-sector clients worldwide. He leads a team of more than 100 professionals in the delivery of real estate services to the public sector. He oversees work across the federal, state and municipal government sectors in addition to specific expertise with transit, higher education and not-for-profit clients.

With 30 years of experience in real estate and facilities planning, Bob Hunt serves as managing director, Public Institutions, at JLL. He leads a national team of professionals helping government and higher education institutions address their most pressing real estate challenges. His team provides a wide range of real estate advisory services exclusively to government and higher education clients in the United States. Hunt has deep experience in development advisory service, public-private partnerships, feasibility studies, highest and best use analysis and real estate portfolio strategies.

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