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6.24.2020

The Future of Office Space in a Post-COVID World

The coronavirus pandemic has made us rethink almost everything about the way we live our lives—from hygiene, to how we interact with others, to how we purchase goods. It’s also forced us to take a long look at how we design and inhabit professional spaces.

In the world of commercial real estate, that last issue is obviously not just relevant, but critical. While Zoom and other video conferencing platforms and tech solutions have eased the transition to more of a virtual work environment for many companies until a vaccine is created, physical spaces are still central to the way most brands and businesses operate. Most have acknowledged the need for that physical space for collaboration and continuity. Many businesses are faced with the prospect of determining the best and most productive way to get back to work.

Thinking about the future of office space during and after COVID is quickly becoming much more than just a theoretical exercise, but an urgent practical necessity. For owners, operators and occupants, the time to ask (and answer) tough questions about what post-COVID office environments will look like, how we will use them, and how we may redesign and reconfigure them to address health and safety concerns, is now.

Some of the most pressing questions include:

  • How will the pandemic force office buyers or renters to think differently about their office space in the future?
  • What new design trends will emerge from this moment in time?
  • Is there even still a need for a traditional office space? If so, why?

New spaces and new ideas

Protecting the health and safety of office users and visitors is obviously the priority for anyone involved in conceiving or creating the office of the future. Tenants are already reimagining, redesigning and reconfiguring their spaces to provide more distance between employees, and reducing or eliminating shared common areas where the spread of germs is more likely to occur.

One common change we are likely to see a great deal of is a comprehensive redesign of the low office cubicles. During COVID, cubes are likely to have higher and consequently more protective dividers to minimize airflow exchange with coworkers. Many of the existing low cubicles are being retrofitted with plexiglass in the short run.  More private cubes, better spacing between workstations, and rental spaces with more private/individual offices are going to almost certainly be more prevalent in the short run.

Unfortunately, many businesses will have to find creative and effective ways to promote engagement and connectivity in the workplace, with game rooms, collaborative seating areas and entertainment/relaxation spaces being reduced, modified or going away. Common rooms and meeting spaces may also be on the chopping block. Not only are those spaces a liability in a world with legitimate concerns about communicable sickness, but their removal may facilitate the expansion and spacing referenced above to put more distance between employees. Shared spaces like kitchens, or smaller spaces like copy rooms, may also be limited to a certain number of employees at any one time.

The same goes for amenities that may have previously been assets, such as shared gyms, high-end kitchens, cafes, etc.  These amenities might find themselves in a very difficult position as they quickly turn into potential liabilities. At the very least, these assets will need to be cleaned more frequently, have spacing requirements and allow for less density in their use.

As part of a larger effort to minimize shared surfaces and improve hygiene, we are likely to see functional spaces and features like restrooms, entries and exits enhanced with the addition of touchless doors, faucets and dryers. We will also see people use stairs more and elevators less, and layouts that minimize pedestrian cross traffic for ingress, egress and through buildings.

While it’s safe to say that post-COVID priorities could spark a shift in office design trends, landlords and tenants alike should keep in mind that this could all change quickly when a vaccine is developed within the next six to twelve months. In a dynamic and developing situation like this one, new information is emerging all the time that could change our understanding of the virus and the best ways to keep ourselves safe. That is why smaller, cost-effective reconfigurations are the best strategy for now. Decisions about larger structural and more comprehensive changes are best left for a few months down the road.

If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that just because we can more easily work from home these days, that doesn’t mean we want to—or that it’s the best long-term solution. People want social interaction, and to be inspired by the creativity and collaborative engagement that only comes from being in the same room. While virtual work environments will be featured more prominently moving forward, brick-and-mortar offices aren’t going away anytime soon. They just might look a little different.

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