How CFOs can incorporate resilience in their infrastructure plans

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored to finance leaders the need for more adaptable and sustainable workplaces.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many organisations reacted quickly and found ways to adjust to new realities in the short term. To enable social distancing, a common solution was to switch to remote work or break up employees' schedules into shifts.

But these strategies and similar quick-fix approaches may not be sustainable over the long term. Rather, organisations must transition to longer-lasting resilience. When it comes to workspaces, finance professionals must find ways to invest in more resilient physical infrastructure, which will ultimately support resilience in the workforce as well.

For CFOs, an important part of securing more resilient infrastructure is investing in adaptability. That will mean adjusting capital investment plans and setting aside resources to transform a space when need be. That way, they can be prepared for future situations where the existing infrastructure suddenly stops working well.

Rethinking physical design. So how should managers think about and design resilient spaces? According to Darren Comber, the CEO of global architecture and design firm Scott Brownrigg, they must begin by considering how the pandemic is changing societal attitudes to our environment, the way we work, where we live, our changing expectations around quality of life, and what those shifts mean for the way that we relate to physical workplace.

In traditional office buildings, for example, many workers now prefer individual offices rather than open-plan layouts. Meanwhile, in manufacturing spaces, assembly lines will need to be adapted to allow for physical distancing. Gone are "the days where we packed everyone in", Comber said. He predicts offices will become more like university campuses, where people come together to create and exchange ideas, before returning home to do focused work.

At the moment, workspaces with roof terraces or other outdoor areas are in high demand. So are bigger indoor spaces, whereas, previously, many workplaces were designed to enhance incidental meetings.

"So where we've designed lots of space where people bumped into each other, now we have to design so you can't even interface with people," Comber said. "The whole thing has been turned on its head."

According to the architecture firm Gensler, key themes in design now are health and wellness, equity, and sustainability. The firm designed a model workplace of the future in San Jose, California, comprising low, horizontal buildings allowing for multiple entry and exit points to reduce congestion, and encompassing large open spaces filled with natural daylight. Other important health and safety features included touchless technology and air filtration.

To enhance resilience, Gensler recommends designing mudrooms and multipurpose entries, where people can clean off before entering the workplace; corridors with large circulation paths and "programmed" areas to create separation; hybrid office-cubicles ("officles") to allow for semiprivate workspace while still enabling small meetings in an open, touchless environment; gender-neutral restrooms to simplify cleaning for maintenance staff; and separate entrances and exits, at least for the near term, which could be adapted down the road.

Key drivers of resilience. Philip Parnell, Deloitte UK's Real Estate Valuation lead, sees three drivers of resilience in real estate: the materials used to construct a building, the building's location, and its use. Energy-efficient and high-quality building materials are becoming an increasingly important investment, especially as we come to understand the links between environmental sustainability and human health.

"There's been a lot of talk around green buildings commanding a so-called premium in the market," Parnell said. "But, I think, such is the agenda that anything that strays from having these attributes is actually more exposed to financial risk and accelerated obsolescence, rather than it commanding a premium."

In terms of location, both access and accessibility are important, he said, as well as a building's "contextual fit" within the local environment and community.

The adaptability of a space — its ability to be refurbished — is the greatest driver of resilience. Parnell said the cost of "simply knocking something down and rebuilding" is coming under scrutiny, from both a financial and carbon perspective.

What's more, the needs of today may not be the needs of tomorrow; indeed, the need for personal space could subside as vaccines are rolled out. The solution, therefore, should not be to continue changing locations based on present needs, but rather to invest in spaces that can be adapted at any point.

According to Scott Brownrigg's Comber, that requires finding buildings with or retrofitting buildings to incorporate flexible room.

"There is going to be more of an emphasis, when we talk about resilience, on how adaptable are the building spaces we create in the future," he said, "rather than just, 'It's worked this way before, we're going to do it again.'"

For example, his own firm modified an existing "redundant" space last summer. The company turned the entrance hall of its London studio into bicycle storage space after employees began cycling to work rather than taking public transport amid the pandemic. That was possible because it had previously invested in a highly resilient, adaptable space.

"If a building is so efficient that it doesn't have any 'flexible space', it effectively means you are constrained to use it pretty much as it is," Comber said. "If you design it so it is too efficient, then it can be very hard to adapt, because you haven't built in any swing space."

Gensler's California model, too, enables adaptability over time, accounting for low occupancy rates in the near term, a stabilised health environment in the midterm, and a post-pandemic return to normality — or at least a move beyond the crisis stage. For example, to account for different levels of occupancy over time, large open spaces designed for social distancing could eventually be converted into officles.

Of course, it is impossible to know exactly what the workspace needs of tomorrow will be. Angus Johnston, PwC's real estate leader for UK and EMEA, recommends CFOs work backwards from their expected workforce needs to determine their real estate needs. Figure out which jobs can be remote or flexible in the long term and which cannot. Try to gauge how many days a week your staff will want to come in versus working from home. Then make design changes from there.

"It's not clear that always working remotely is always the best thing for everybody in all circumstances," Johnston said. "So the challenge for organisations is to ... work out how best to give people flexibility, but at the same time keep that resilience."

Investing in wellbeing. As financial managers consider possible investments, they should ensure any cost/benefit analysis accounts for the fact that a physical environment that supports employee wellbeing — and takes safety, comfort, and environmental sustainability into account — will help their organisations retain and attract talent, boosting long-term productivity.

Indeed, all of these drivers of resilience — and elements such as natural daylight, good ventilation, high ceilings, and outdoor space — ultimately come down to employee wellbeing. Happy, productive employees will contribute to an organisation's resilience.

"Look away from the cost of real estate to the value it brings and that attraction of talent, the ability to drive productivity," Parnell said. "Staff retention and general wellbeing are incredibly important, as well as the flexibility of space to enable the business to evolve."

Portia Crowe is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at