Author: Laurie Reynoldson, CCIM
I’ve received a number of questions from my office tenant clients recently about how COVID-19 will impact the future of office space.
In particular, prospective tenants seem to be questioning their future space needs. Specifically, should they look for smaller spaces? If a significant portion of their work force can efficiently work from home, do they even need private work spaces for all employees? What about the big break room? How important are building amenities, like on-site showers, locker rooms, and on-site coffee shops?
Here are my two cents.
Traditional Office Space
Given that many of us have demonstrated that we can efficiently work from home, will there be future need for traditional office space? YES.
Although we can work from home, there are good reasons to get workers back to the office when the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. First, collaboration is limited when working from home. Sure, we can discuss ideas on phone calls and video conferences, but it’s different than being able to walk into someone’s office and bounce ideas off one another. Proximity breeds collaboration. Inspiration does not always stick to a regimented schedule, and some of the best ideas come outside of scheduled meetings.
Second, humans need interaction. We crave it. That’s why you’re seeing so many Zoom calls for work meetings, but also for outside-of-work activities like happy hours and book clubs and game nights and prayer groups. Certainly, there is more daily interaction in a traditional office setting. Even if it’s just casual conversation in the break room or a quick conversation in the hallway. From a mental health perspective, a traditional office helps reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness.
Third, there are a number of distractions that impact efficiency while working from home. Not only are we working from home right now, but we are also homeschooling kids who are out of school. And taking care of dogs, who like to bark at postal workers and the garbage truck. And cleaning the kitchen after lunch breaks, and doing the laundry between conference calls. There are a lot of visual and audible distractions at home that do not exist in a traditional office setting.
So yes, most of us will be returning to a traditional office setting even though we can work from home.
Will our company need a smaller office space in the wake of COVID-19? NO.
It is safe to say that COVID-19 will impact all public gatherings moving forward, including the layout of office space. Even after offices reopen for business, social distancing rules will continue to inform the way in which we work together in the office.
Think about walking through your office space. Are the hallways and travel corridors six feet wide? Think about attending a meeting in a conference room. How close are you to the two workers sitting on either side of you? Even some sitting across the table from you are less than six feet away.
Think about riding the elevators. Think about sharing a restroom with several stalls. Think about the logistics in the breakroom, with employees sharing refrigerator space and coffee cups and water dispensers and lunch tables.
Although some businesses may believe that they will need less office space in the future, I believe that social distancing rules will limit companies’ abilities to significantly contract their physical office space.
We are also likely to see a preference for more private offices in the future. Certainly, the trend over the last decade has been open, collaborative work spaces with shared conference rooms for meetings and smaller telephone rooms for private conversations. Most workers in open work spaces understand some of the challenges relating to working in open work spaces. While collaboration may be easier, there are also frequent noise and activity distractions. There is little, to no, sense of privacy. Accordingly, clients have been requesting build-out of more private offices in the last couple years. Now, it seems that there will be an even greater demand for more private offices if no other reason than a worker’s ability to shut the office door and minimize contact with others.
For workers that share workspaces, it is likely that employees will be asked to bring their laptops and coffee mugs and work materials with them each day, and take them with them when they leave at the end of the day.
Office users that are likely to see the greatest impact on the physical layout of their spaces are technology companies, back-end business offices and call centers, which have historically preferred open work spaces to accommodate as many workers in a space as possible. It is hard to imagine that office users in these sectors will seek out office spaces with overall less square footage…even if their employees have proven that they can effectively work from home over the past six weeks. The reason: they will need extra space to spread out their employees.
Today, many call centers allocate between 100-150 square feet per worker. Some employees share desk space. Others employees work in adjoining cubicles. Certainly, those employees will find it tough to socially distance themselves from their coworkers. Therefore, employers will need more space to allow their employees adequate social distance.
What other considerations are necessary when returning a workforce back to their offices? THERE ARE MANY.
While many workers are eager to get back to the office, there are still some considerations that need to be addressed. Safety should be at the top of the list. Safety not only includes worker safety from a social distancing perspective, but it also encompasses enhanced cleaning practices. We will likely move to daily cleaning protocols that require more than a nightly vacuum and weekly surface dusting. Daily sanitization will be expected. Increased cleaning requirements will impact building operating costs, which will, in turn, impact tenant lease rates.
Security guards may be called on to monitor the number of individuals entering office buildings and congregating in office lobbies, much like security guards are now doing at grocery stores. Similarly, there will likely be limits on the number of workers riding elevators together. Think about how that will impact elevator waits during heavy demand times like early morning, lunchtime and end-of-workday. Again, security guards on staff will increase building operating costs, which are passed through to the tenants.
Also, hand sanitizer dispensers will likely be installed in building lobbies to use after opening the entry doors and before pushing the elevator button.
There will be changes to building cafeterias and coffee shops. There will be changes to on-site gyms and fitness centers. Simply put, there will be changes to the way office workers work in a space and a building that will impact every worker going to back to the office.
A couple last thoughts.
If our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is that office workers will figure out ways to make it work. Sure, there are technical glitches and bandwidth limits that impact remote use of technology. But overall, companies pulled off something pretty incredible over the last six weeks when whole organizations moved nearly all of their workers home in the matter of days and weeks. God bless all the IT departments!
I am hopeful that the great work-from-home experiment of 2020 will encourage some employers to take a look at their policies, and allow for greater flexibility in granting work-from-home requests in certain cases, like for workers returning to work following maternity, paternity or family leave. Or when a child is home sick with the flu and cannot go to school or be taken to daycare. Or allowing workers to work from home on certain days to avoid long commutes. Or when workers simply need to work remotely for other reasons. Establishing a set 8:00-5:00 schedule and requiring all workers to be on-site during those hours feels antiquated. Let’s draw on what we’ve learned to allow greater flexibility in remote working when it is warranted.
Be patient. We’ll get back in due time. In the meantime, stay safe.