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Fast-Tracking into Chief of Real Estate

June 4, 2021

Managing physical offices during COVID-19 is just one part of creating a healthy workspace. Practices around remote work, transparency in back-to-office decisions and a culture that supports hybrid work are also important considerations.

This article was published in print and online in the Spring 2021 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy. 

By Joanne Wright


As a multinational technology and consulting company with around 350,000 employees serving clients in over 100 countries, riding out the global pandemic was simply not an option. Clients were counting on us as were our employees. With the health and safety of employees, clients and partners as our top priority, it was time to reimagine and reinvent the way we served our enterprise clients, including those who count on us to manage their banking IT operations, to run hospital and insurance systems, and to deliver public sector services.

Suddenly client visits were remote via video chat. Our kitchen and dining room tables became our desks. Our kids were now home with us—sometimes in our meetings. They, like our partners, spouses and roommates, all competed for bandwidth from our home wi-fi networks.

By the end of March 2020, 95 percent of IBM employees were working remotely. Yet, the other 5 percent, our essential employees, still needed to come into the workplace or visit critical client operations. We recognized our obligation to ensure their safety and, almost immediately, we began planning for safe returns more broadly.  We created the “IBM Return to Workplace Playbook,” a practical guide for local IBM Crisis Management Teams of our phased criteria of authorizing the reopening of offices and labs and keeping our essential operations like manufacturing and data centers up and running. Given the challenges that all organizations have faced in navigating workplace answers during the pandemic, we are sharing our key lessons here so that others might benefit from our experience.

Our Playbook provides guidelines for returning in three waves, beginning with employees in jobs best suited to onsite work settings in locations that meet rigorous criteria. The guide documented detailed workplace preparations like air exchanges, requirement and procedures preparations, and processes to be followed by employees, a readiness checklist, and guidance for visiting clients at their offices.


Learning from Our Pandemic Response

We broadly and frequently communicated our position to employees, garnering more than four million page views of our pandemic intranet content. Yet we quickly recognized that the complexity of caring for locked-down family members, while managing work responsibilities, could take a mental toll on our team members. Many employees acknowledged feeling overwhelmed trying to be professional while life was going on all around them. It was not always possible to keep the dog from barking, or the cat from walking across your keyboard, or trying to ignore the kids repeatedly calling out your name.

For the well-being of our employees, we needed to establish and respect new boundaries and support one another as we all navigated through this new way of working and living.

A grassroots initiative across the workforce took shape, evolving into a companywide pledge with the simple goal of making work (and life) a little easier while we’re working at home.

With more teams working from home, our people managers became IBMers’ main source for guidance and support. Special manager training, developed and curated by the IBM HR Learning and Mental Health specialists, honed in on leading in a crisis, helping distributed teams stay motivated and engaged, and ways to provide emotional support. We hosted virtual leadership sessions with outside speakers to help managers build the skills needed to help teams feel connected. Topics included Leading in Challenging Times, Radical Candor, Motivating Virtual Teams, Leading Through Crisis and the Entrepreneurial Spirit, and Creating a Culture of High-Performance, Trust and Belonging.

Were we ready to work from home? Yes. IBMers were provided the tools they needed to collaborate virtually. Recognizing the deep cultural upheaval that could be caused by limiting in-person interactions, we also quickly provided wellness and mental health guidance to help employees stay safe and sane as the virus ripped across the world. Employees received real-time global and local updates on the pandemic, as well as resources to protect their health, safety and well-being, including a 24/7 “Ask Health & Safety” team available to answer questions or address concerns, even Ask Me Anything events with our Chief Medical Officer and her team.

Did we have all the answers? Maybe not, but we were intent on listening to employees—especially when it came to serving our clients seamlessly. Many of us had grown up in a world where face-to-face servicing, selling and deal closure was crucial to our business. But now, sales calls had to be done virtually and meeting client prospects for the first time was done online. Awkward? Perhaps, yet within a few weeks, this became the new norm.  We realized the alternative experiences could bring new advantages. In fact, this gave us a whole new opportunity to be innovative for our clients.


Emerging Smarter

When the pandemic is contained, most companies will work differently—the way we operate and what we prioritize will be different. Based on local conditions and our stringent guidelines, more than 175 workplaces across the globe have reopened for a limited number of employees to return to the office.  But just because we have opened does not mean that everyone wants to come back. Employees told us that they are confident that IBM will follow the “best” return-to-workplace protocols. There is a strong need to continue to build and sustain a culture of and commitment to safety. This is where technology can make a big difference.

We are embracing our own technologies as part of the process—using data and AI technologies that we call IBM Watson Works to make employees feel confident that the workplace is set up to protect their health. IBMers complete daily health self-screening questionnaires with the tool and can check out helpful information sources like COVID-19 trends in the area.

The automated tools help employees reserve desks and meeting rooms before coming to the office. With self-service, automated, and mobile processes, the technologies ensure spaces intended for use are socially distanced and trigger cleaning work orders so we’re not reusing workspaces until they have been confirmed clean.

Another tool addresses the management and deeper understanding of building occupancy, in effect permitting us to monitoring near real-time building occupancy. Leaders can access density heatmaps—critical for social distancing.

It is also important to share information, challenges and data, not only internally but with our clients as well.  For example, we used a geography and market-based approach. This helped when we saw what was happening to some of our clients and employees in China and South Korea, who were impacted by the virus early on. We learned what we did well and what we could do better. We continued to use that knowledge, our various tools and our agile collaboration approach, to share real-time experiences to support each other and our clients. A lot of this is simply a willingness to listen and learn. Being innovative does not mean that you have to go in and break something. Sometimes, it’s about moving at a different rate and pace.


The Workplace of the Future

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how adaptable our employees are.  Still, regular surveys of our colleagues tell us they do miss the collaboration and office interaction. When the pandemic is over, however, most employees will not return to the office in the traditional manner. IBM believes strongly in the power of face-to-face collaboration for specific elements of work, and we believe that in-person interactions build stronger teams and makes the work experience more rewarding. As a result, while some work requires people to be onsite in an office on a daily basis, most employees and teams may only need the workplace to be a collaboration hub for specific activities.

For this, we are creating modern, agile, innovative work locations focused on team collaboration. Our space and technology is essential to our success so we will continue to invest and upgrade our sites to provide an employee experience that enables IBMers and our clients to work at their best.  In person workplace attendance will be purposeful, perhaps only a few days per week for most.

There is no longer a one-size-fits all approach. Through workflow design and technology, we are moving toward behavior-based designs, spaces that are specifically designed for people and teams to co-create both in person and virtually.

Our agile workplaces will be designed for maximum flexibility to provide employees with all the technology and tools they need. By design, employees in agile work environments will not be constrained by 9-5 work schedules, and they may be free to work remotely. This vision of agile workplaces will now be defined as the new normal for IBM and many other companies when they emerge from the pandemic.

To transfer and emerge stronger, it is important to gain a clear understanding of what contributes to a meaningful employee experience.  Listening to our employees has been critical in our decision-making process. It is part of who we are as a company: to co-create with employees and give them the voice to shape the new workplace culture and habits for the “new abnormal.” It is working. Despite the challenges of 2020, we actually saw an increase in employee engagement.


Smart Return to the Workplace

According to a survey from the corporate real estate firm JLL, 3 in 4 workers want to return to the office when the health risks of the virus subside. About half are hoping for a hybrid work arrangement between an office and home, meaning increased flexibility.

Our employees will come back to the IBM offices, based on local conditions and our guidelines for opening offices. We will experiment with a new way of working, and our employees will come in for a specific purpose, all under our new safety protocols.

IBM strongly supports preventive healthcare in line with public health authorities and the medical community recommendations. We believe the vaccines will be powerful tools for curbing the spread of COVID-19. However, at this time, we don’t have plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

We want our employees feeling confident that the workplace is set up to protect their health. We want employees, clients and other people who enter IBM facilities to see, feel and experience the difference. COVID-19 has taught us that just because you build a safer space doesn’t mean that people will want to come back—you need to give thought to sustaining a new culture, even if it means that some will work remotely for a more extended time. When the office is ready to reopen, and employees are ready to return, it will be safe for them to do so.