With the COVID-19 pandemic altering the public health landscape in profound and possibly lasting ways, business decision makers have faced unprecedented operational and financial challenges. Consequently, they have been forced to think differently about everything from the design and functionality of their office space, to the procedures, priorities, and protocols that will define brick-and-mortar environments in the months and years ahead.
Video conferencing technology and remote working setups have eased some of the impact of quarantine measures. They have also reminded us, however, that there is real value in maintaining a dedicated office space, which promotes face-to-face engagement and an energetic work environment. The collaboration and creativity of shared spaces simply cannot be replicated with mobile or work-at-home solutions. While it is still too soon to know exactly when we will be able to get back to “normal,” or what that new normal will look like, it’s clear that the traditional office is being transformed.
Understanding what those pandemic-driven changes will look like going forward, and what kinds of shifts in office design considerations, amenities, and management principles will proliferate, is an important first step in preparing for the post-COVID office environments of tomorrow. For decision makers, that understanding will help inform the planning and preparations they can be doing right now to get ready for whatever tomorrow brings.
Rethinking familiar features
Safeguarding the health and wellbeing of employees and guests is the first priority. To that end, we are already seeing some landlords, tenants, and their design partners working to reimagine, redesign, and reconfigure existing spaces to provide more room for employees. One common change that is already being considered is the redesign of a traditional office staple: the cubicle. New cubicle designs or modifications feature more spacing between units, and higher walls with dividers to minimize airflow between employees. While these features could become standard in the future, some existing spaces are being retrofitted with plexiglass panels or other add-on divider features with some success.
Ironically, shared spaces and facilities that were viewed as defining amenities just a few short months ago are now potential liabilities. From gyms, to kitchens and cafeterias — and even some meeting rooms — decision makers are recognizing that those spaces need to change. At the very least, they will require more stringent cleaning and limits on use. In many cases, they will simply be eliminated or repurposed to create more space for socially distanced cubicles or additional workspace.
Small additions — big impact
It isn’t just the big design changes that can have a sizable health and wellness benefit. In a continuing effort to reduce the risk of germ exchange on high-touch surfaces, we are already seeing a number of small-but-important changes to places like restrooms, access points, and other high-traffic public spaces like lobbies and elevators. From directional and health-and-safety signage, to touchless doors with kick-plate openers, to hygienic elevator buttons and touchless faucets and dryers in restrooms, landlords and tenants are working together to make modest changes that could have a potentially dramatic impact in making office spaces safer.
Taking it slow
While there is little indication that the fundamental dynamics behind the current public health situation will change dramatically, this is an inherently unpredictable set of circumstances. With two vaccines now being distributed, the calculus changes. Given the fact that new information is constantly coming out, and our understanding about how best to protect ourselves and our colleagues is always evolving, it is unsurprising that most landlords and tenants are taking a slow-and-steady approach for the moment. Smaller, cost-effective changes are already taking place, but bigger and pricier structural changes are on the back burner. That wait-and-see mindset is clear in the marketplace, as well, especially here in the Midwest. Nonessential businesses are taking their time to get back into the office and are being cautious about investing large amounts of money to retrofit their offices.
Enthusiasm remains high
For all of the changes outlined above, one of the biggest and most noteworthy trends is that enthusiasm for office space is largely undiminished. The vast majority of tenants are renewing leases, and we’ve actually seen some tenants taking on more space right now to accommodate their desire to provide added physical distance between employees. While some are requesting rent modifications or delaying their return until early 2021, it is primarily smaller companies of 10 or fewer employees that are choosing to work exclusively from home. One potentially important trend to watch over the next year or two is the desire to move out of urban centers into lower density suburbs, where less crowded locations and facilities will likely be an appealing alternative to some.
We have already learned some difficult lessons during the pandemic. One of those is that for all of the advantages of working from home, it isn’t a long-term solution for most employers or employees. There is simply no replacing the traditional office, and the operational, creative, and productivity advantages it offers. That’s why the near-term and long-term future of office space is much more than a thought exercise — it’s a practical and increasingly urgent priority. The time to ask and answer questions about what we can do to make office spaces safer and more appealing isn’t tomorrow — it’s today.
Andy Gutman is president of Farbman Group in Southfield and its related companies. He oversees more than 25 million square feet of rentable square footage in the commercial real estate sector in the Midwest, and manages a team of more than 200 employees. Gutman is an expert in accounting, finance, and asset management and previously held the title of CFO at Farbman Group. He has more than 27 years of commercial real estate experience working for international and family-owned, multi-generational commercial real estate companies.