Employees may finally return to the office in earnest this year, but likely not full time. Most workers say they want to collaborate with colleagues in the office sometimes and work remotely at other times—although not if the experience is going to be frustrating due to poor scheduling and disorganized workflow.
Hybrid workplaces come with a host of complex issues around facilities management. Space management technology is essential for a successful hybrid workplace, allowing employers to process real-time data, automate tasks and provide a superior employee experience.
"Space management is much more complicated now than it was previously and will be for the foreseeable future," said Juliana Beauvais, research manager for enterprise asset management and smart facilities at IDC, a market research and advisory services firm in Needham, Mass. "For a long time, it was about accommodating volume, to make sure you had enough space for everybody, but now it is more about employee behavior. What percent of people are expected to be in the office, when will those people come into the facility and what will they need to be productive? Those factors are driving the use of these automated solutions."
Employers are being challenged with not only getting people to come back to the office, but also making the in-office experience engaging and productive, said Amy Yin, CEO and founder of OfficeTogether, a desk reservation and office management platform in San Francisco. "The flexibility that comes with implementing a hybrid work model is a critical benefit, but that flexibility comes with an organizational cost. When people show up at the office, they may not know who will be there or what kind of support they will have to do their job."
Yin noted that many employers with hybrid arrangements will find they have more space than they need, providing an opportunity to transform traditional office cubicle setups into more collaborative areas. "Flexible spaces for people to meet will be a big part of every hybrid company's strategy," she said.
Space management software has traditionally been a tracking and planning solution, but offerings emerging from the pandemic are being built with employee experience in mind to ensure that engagement is elevated and workflows and efficiencies are seamless.
"For the employee, it's about providing a great experience and making sure that if someone is coming into the office, that they have a dedicated place to work that day, they have visibility into who is also in the office and where they are located, and [they] are able to easily request services or equipment while onsite," Beauvais said. "For the employer, in addition to effectively managing the space, the tools provide the ability to collect data about the behavioral use of the space to inform long-term decision-making."
Beauvais said that a lot of new vendors are cropping up to meet this new need, including OfficeTogether and OfficeMaps. And well-known vendors like London-based Condeco and ServiceNow, a global digital workflow technology company in Santa Clara, Calif., are enhancing their platforms to help organizations solve these new challenges.
"This technology is providing employers with the solution they need to safely return employees to physical workspaces, and also to design and manage those spaces in new ways for usability and to be able to maximize that time for collaboration," said Melanie Lougee, head of employee workflow strategy at ServiceNow.
Hybrid Work Brings Challenges
Due to its dynamic nature, a hybrid workplace model is difficult to manage without real-time data.
"With a different number of people coming in on different days to do different things, every facet of workspace planning is potentially fluid," Beauvais said. "It's a really complicated optimization problem trying to align supply and demand."
Some of the more-common problems employers and employees are facing when experimenting with a hybrid work model happen because the employer isn't sure how employees are using the space, Lougee said.
"The organization lacks visibility into the spaces being used by employees and lacks the information needed to design newer floor plans based on real-time data and usage trends that will enable a more group-oriented productivity," she said, "If management can access that real-time data, they can make more informed decisions about office layouts, which floors and buildings need to be opened at what times, how much food needs to be stocked in the cafeteria, what kinds of workplace cleaning schedules need to be put in place, etc."
For employees, the struggle is how to best coordinate their time in the office with that of their colleagues. Overbooking and underbooking space will both lead to a poor experience, diminished productivity and frustration.
"Workers need much better tools to plan a trip to the office," Lougee said. "Organizing and scheduling time in the office is clunky across e-mail. Many new hires during the pandemic have never even been to their office. They may not know where they are supposed to sit, let alone who is in the office on any given day."
Brian Chen, CEO and co-founder of Room, an office space design company in New York City, said that it was administratively burdensome for his staff to coordinate with colleagues about which two or three days each week would be best to be onsite.
"It was lots of Slacking back and forth to figure out who would be in the office in the upcoming week, and then we got feedback from some people about their uncertainty regarding whether COVID protocols were being followed in the office," he said.
Technology to the Rescue
Space management technology automates desk and meeting room reservations, freeing up facility and HR managers to focus on analyzing workspace usage data and developing new improvements to the employee experience.
Chen said that using OfficeTogether has made it easy to coordinate schedules across teams.
"OfficeTogether also notifies employees when certain people will be in the office and promotes events going on at the office to build employee engagement," Yin added.
Transparency in desk and meeting room bookings is essential for the success of a hybrid workplace.
"Space mapping allows employees to be able to see where their colleagues are seated on any given day, which allows them to reserve places based on socially distanced floor plans on an interactive map instead of a best guess," Lougee said.
Employees can also request equipment and resources. "The space management solutions are on the same platform and tied to the same user experience as the rest of our workflow and IT offerings, which makes it easy for employees," Lougee said.
Tools like OfficeTogether and ServiceNow's Workplace Service Delivery module can support a safe and healthy work environment by managing employee and visitor check-ins, facilitating health screenings, monitoring vaccination statuses and performing contact tracing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Importantly for the business, the tools identify workflow patterns and give company leaders the data needed to make good space management decisions.
"The software collects useful data, such as how many times a person comes into the office and how the space is utilized," Yin said. "These data points can help management determine the amount and type of commercial real estate that is needed in the future."