The must-haves for the office of the near future may not be the same as they were six months ago. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the way people live and work, every community has had to take stock of how their future office space and common area amenities can be safely occupied. As businesses across the country are in various stages of reopening, office real estate experts on opposite coasts shared how their clients are reimagining their office space.
Adapting for the Short Term
Stefan Rogers, senior vice president, Voit Real Estate Services/CORFAC International, said Orange County, California, business owners who have transitioned to a remote workforce are extending that policy instead of retrofitting their existing space to enable a return. This way they avoid incurring a potential short-term capital expense in a space they’re not sure they may need in its current format moving forward.
But, some businesses providing essential services have had to remain open and implement and enforce social distancing measures. They’ve opted for low-cost yet high-impact measures such as instructional and directional signage, temperature testing at entry, and sanitizing stations.
“We expect most businesses’ office space needs to change when and if they fully return to the workplace, but due to the evolving and novel nature of COVID-19, there’s still much to be understood in terms of what types of changes may become permanent,” said Rogers. “However, we certainly expect to see at least a short-term move away from high-density workplaces.”
On the East Coast, Andrew Simon, executive managing director of Helmsley Spear, LLC/CORFAC International based in New York, is advising tenants to take a measured approach to re-entry. The city moved into its Phase 2 in late June, and most companies are expecting only 15-25% of their workforce to come to the office on any given day.
“We are encouraging anyone who does not need to be in the office to work remotely for the time being. If people need to be in, they need to let their supervisor know so that we can schedule the occupancy in such a way as to ensure less than 50% of capacity,” he said.
In the meantime, many of the city’s major landlords have upgraded their ventilation systems to include the newest filters, or UV systems that can be incorporated into the existing systems. Touchless systems for high-traffic areas are being installed where possible, and more frequent cleaning is now common for lobbies, entry doors and elevators.
Simon notes that many changes in the short-term are behavioral rather than physical, including temperature checks, requiring masks and limiting capacity in elevators, bathrooms and kitchens. Property managers and owners are also focusing on being able to trace if exposure occurs by keeping a guest log and having all entrants sign a form stating they have no symptoms or known exposures before they obtain access to the building.
Is Touchless Technology Replacing Communal Amenity?
Before the pandemic, offices had shifted toward collaborative environments with open-plan seating, fewer offices and more gathering and multifunctional spaces such as large kitchens, lounges, and conference and training rooms. However, until a vaccine or effective treatment, or until case numbers diminish almost completely, bringing together employees in large groups will need to wait.
Right now, building owners should focus on high-value, high-visibility improvements that enhance capital value and viability of the building in the eyes of tenants regardless of COVID-19’s impact. Examples include automatic building doors, touchless restroom facilities and spacious outdoor spaces, especially private ones.
“As long as there is an elevated or perceived fear of COVID-19, shared indoor building amenities will remain underutilized, but we don’t foresee this being a permanent long-term change,” said Rogers. “Moreover, a continued push towards quality of life and wellness in the workplace post-COVID-19 will likely re-ignite demand for communal building amenities, particularly outside amenities.”
Parking presents an interesting opportunity for building owners to help tenants bring employees back to work, particularly in urban areas where mass transit commutes are a concern.
“That is the single biggest obstacle to repopulating – the need for many to take trains and buses in to work,” said Simon. “That has resulted in many companies considering suburban short-term leases for hubs that can allow some workers to avoid mass transit and allow them to take a short drive and to be able to park on-site.”
Simon also added that a re-purposing of vacant retail space either as single-occupant offices for smaller professional service firms, or as meeting space in larger multitenant buildings, may help provide square footage needed to decrease the density of workplaces.
The Office of the Near Future
While the office may not look like the bustling and mingling place it was as recently as early 2020, both experts believe that it will once again be an integral part of the lives of American office workers. Building owners and tenant representatives, together with their tenants, must be adaptable today to have a healthier, productive workspace for the near and long term.