Do not Overreact to COVID-19 as Your Workforce Returns to the Office

Contributed by Tactix Real Estate Advisors.

Academic, industry and media inputs on workspace implications arising from COVID-19 are surging into overload. And, over the coming weeks, c-teams are going to continue to be inundated with articles and reports advising them to completely change their workspace, furniture and employee densities – to thrive in the new business realm.  Already we are being warned by commercial space designers, furniture vendors, and brokerage firms that no one will sit next to others anymore, and to do so will be a safety hazard.

Not so fast.

Remember 9/11

On September 11, 2001, the American homeland was attacked with weaponized commercial aircraft; we suffered the worst foreign attack on our continent in over 200 years and all of us were properly  terrified.

Post-9/11, per conventional wisdom, no one again would (i) travel by commercial airliner, (ii) live, work or recreate in a major city or (iii) develop, lease, finance, insure – or occupy – a trophy high-rise office building.  As such, some companies relocated to lower-profile office buildings in the CBD; other businesses de-camped to suburban (or exurban) quarters.  However, over time, there was a flight back to quality options in urban centers and the tallest, most imageable buildings in CBDs across North America filled up.

For most of us, the worst fears about the future when we awoke on September 12, 2001 dissipated over time. While building and life safety codes were revised to address new risks, businesses did not fundamentally revise their thinking about how or where they consume office space.

Distinguish between temporary and permanent changes in behavior.

We now are confronting an unforeseen, life-altering pandemic, COVID-19.

Will companies reflexively change the built office environment based on this epochal occurrence or will they pause, exhale, and rationally seek to predict which changes in behavior will be permanent, and which are only a temporary response to an acute public health problem?

For example, c-teams are reporting to us remote work plans implemented in response to stay-at-home government orders have proven (to even the most skeptical managers) that many jobs can be performed outside of the office with exceptional productivity.  As a result of harvesting this real-time insight, remote work arrangements are likely to be weighted differently in future space planning programs. This and other fundamental changes in staffing such as outsourcing, gig jobs, and no-collar jobs fulfillment doubtless will reduce demand for, and the size of, large-space blocks businesses will occupy over the intermediate and long term.

On the other hand, changes to protocols or behaviors based on the fear of spreading and catching a deadly virus (e.g., extreme physical distancing) are probably only temporary.

We are seeing recommendations to (i) swap panels on workstations from fabric to laminates, (ii) create more dedicated individual offices, (iii) increase the height of panels separating workstations, (iv) convert benched seating into workstations, (v) improve sanitation protocols and air filtration systems, and (vi) build double-wide (or one-way ) corridors to increase physical separation while persons circulating through an office. These are expensive, enduring changes that are an obvious reaction to the pandemic hysteria.

While completely changing furniture systems and layouts will make furniture vendors, designers, landlords and brokers happy (if companies take more space), tenants soon may regret such reactionary changes if they (i) impair productivity or unduly alienate employees from others in the company and (ii) impose significant implementation costs.

The health, safety and holistic wellness of the company’s workforce are front and center for every CEO. However, even if everyone sat six feet apart today, it is important to remember most employees would not be allowed in the office today.  It is the pandemic moment and extraordinary precautions have been put in place that aim to protect our health.  This crisis, however, will hopefully recede into the past in the next 12-18 months.  Americans have short memories when it comes to catastrophes and they are likely to revert to known, comfortable, convenient behaviors.

Rushing to execute expensive, permanent workspace changes to accommodate perceived physical distancing imperatives (contrasted with fundamental changes in remote working or outsourcing) may turn out to be bad long-term investments, and they also may unwittingly further drive people to work remotely.

When the government-imposed quarantine is lifted, people will go into the office to authentically collaborate, to interact with their co-workers and be near people — just as B.C. (meaning when COVID-19 vibed as science fiction).  Confining a worker to his or her personal office or isolated workstation is an act of anti-collaboration.  If the workforce cocoons themselves within their own individual space, they will be better off continuing to work from home (especially when the kids are back in school).

The workspace Imperative; the open-plan paradox

Even if we give each other a few more feet of personal space, the workplace will continue to be a risky built environment until there is a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. There are too many kitchen counters and appliances, doorknobs, faucets, drawer handles, bathroom stall doors, paper dispensers, and elevator buttons to ensure that one will not be infected at the office.

In sum, we either will feel safe enough to go to the office or many in the workforce will stay home. If the office becomes an environment where we must isolate ourselves, wear masks and gloves and avoid touching anything, the office – as the petri dish of corporate collaboration, collision, invention, innovation, and sustenance – is doomed.

In 2019, a decade after corporate facilities decision-makers in the Americas, Europe and Asia hurried to implement and enshrine the “collaborative,” open-plan work environment, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber of Humanyze published their study that confirms an epic paradox – open office plans do not foster the enhanced collaboration and productivity its promoters breathlessly pitched to c-teams around the globe. Further, in some cases, the personal workspaces incorporated into many of these open plans did not correspond well with the daily work tasks of the employees; it was not a good fit. Likewise, rushing to make design changes to your space because of an extraordinary pandemic may result in unintended, perhaps similar problems.

Nonetheless, landlords and tenants will implement new policies and procedures to ensure the health of their occupants and employees in response to COVID-19.  Some landlords are exploring heat-sensing cameras in their lobbies to detect people with high temperatures. Fingerprint scanners are being replaced with security scanners that do not require touching.  And, expect hand sanitation stations to blanket building common areas and an enhanced presence of greeters and security guards in building lobbies to direct traffic, control density and even push the elevator buttons. These are essential to manage the risks of the current health crisis and should not be confused with material, long-term expenses.

There also may be other substantial, permanent changes made to buildings as a result of this pandemic – by reason of mandated changes in health and building codes or because they are viewed as value-adds that will appeal to future tenants. For example, landlords may decide to radically improve sanitation in all building common areas and install new, improved air exchange and air filtration systems in their buildings as a distinguishing amenity – and selling point to prospective tenants.

Conclusion

Like the Spanish Flu of 1918, COVID-19 likely will not be around for long. Any contemplated change in office design or layout by a tenant should account for that fact.  COVID-19 ought not be the Office Terminator.  When the Coronacrisis has passed, a company’s office design and configuration need to make sense – and cents. A goose-stepping march to implement the latest and greatest could be very costly – to the soul of the company.

 

Tactix Real Estate Advisors, LLC
R. Ryan Conner ([email protected])
Gary Lozoff ([email protected])

 

 

 


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