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Office space changes in limbo as workers return

Synergy. Innovation. Creativity. Interaction.

Those buzzwords may be all too familiar to many office workers who recall their office walls disappearing over the last two decades when corporate office planners preached that the best way to utilize the skills of a workforce was to open up the office to create more cross-contact among employees.

But with the rise of the pandemic, the open-plan office concept that so many companies embraced previously now looks like a rich breeding ground for the coronavirus.

As states begin to reopen and employers begin asking workers to return to the office, both bosses and employees are nervous and uncertain about what kind of work environment they should return to.

“The future use and value of conventional office space is perhaps under the most intense scrutiny ever,” CBRE Group, the Los Angeles-based commercial real estate services and investment firm recently wrote in a report about office space in the United States.

“While some are clamoring for a return to the collaboration, social connection and efficiency of the office, others appear skeptical. Most occupiers are evaluating their current and future space needs to support both an increasingly remote workforce and less office density for health and safety reasons,” CBRE said. “In either case, the unmatched value of a dedicated space for commercial innovation and professional collaboration will endure, even if some long-term design changes occur.”

Since March, most companies were focused almost solely on survival and how to adapt to a pandemic that demanded people work remotely if possible or have protected and minimal contact if not possible.

It is only now that employers have started to contemplate what office space will look like going forward, how much or how little will be needed, what changes are needed to allay worker fears, how much changes will cost, and how long they will be necessary.

“The most asked questions of me over the last month or so — other than ‘How are you?’ and ‘Are you well?’ — are variations of those questions, or the general question of what do I think are going to be the consequences on office space,” said Harlan Reichle, president and CEO of the Reichle Klein Group, a Toledo commercial and industrial real estate brokerage that also provides building management and maintenance services.

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Reichle said, “our take is it’s way too early to be answering those questions. We’re only beginning to understand the consequences.”

Reichle Klein’s building managers have reported hearing office tenants wonder if they will need more space in order to promote social distancing or less space with more employees working remotely.

“I don’t think anyone has clarity and it’s going to mean a lot of guesswork,” Mr. Reichle said.

CBRE surveyed 203 companies worldwide recently and more than half are implementing touchless technology to enhance cleanliness.

Most are following social-distancing standards and most will provide employees with face coverings. But less than a third will require masks to be worn at all times that is mandated by local authorities.

Approximately 42 percent of the firms studied have set their own criteria for when workers should return, beyond local and state requirements. Nearly three-fourths plan to bring employees back in phases.

Only 21 percent will allow visitors into the workplace in the early phases of reopening. Forty-five percent will require off-site self-screening for coronavirus symptoms by employees before they arrive at the workplace, while 13 percent will conduct screening of employees on-site at every facility.

The most common steps companies will take to prepare for a return to the office include new signage (82 percent), new space-use policies and guidelines for social distancing (78 percent), outlining social-distancing zones with floor decals and other reminders (74 percent), and reconfiguring furniture layouts (61 percent).

In total, workplaces are looking to reduce capacity by 50 percent to 60 percent, according to Lenny Beaudoin, CBRE Executive Managing Director for Space Enablement Services.

He added that offices are trying to figure out how to subdivide their workforces. Some staff may need to come back because their work demands it, others might want to come back because they miss their desk, their commute, or their colleagues. Conversely, some employees don’t want to come back, do not need to, or cannot because of issues like childcare.

Keith Russeau, an architect and principal at The Collaborative Inc., said he and other leaders at the architectural and design firm have debated five plans on bringing employees back to the company’s offices in Toledo and Ann Arbor — and it still hasn’t completely figured things out.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mr. Russeau said.

The firm cannot expand its offices, plus it spent a lot of time and money in 2016 to reconfigure space in the One SeaGate concourse in Toledo which it later occupied.

“We had a plan in place for the middle part of May but there just wasn’t a whole lot of comfort level with it,” Mr. Russeau said. “As an employer, it’s more about managing fear and preserving comfort than it is about anything else. Unfortunately, I just don’t think there’s any guidance out there from city to county to state,” he said.

The collaborative will require social distancing and for a while it considered closing off a soft seating area for employees. “But the fear from contamination from surfaces seems to be going down for the moment — until (experts) change their minds,” Mr. Russeau said.

The company won’t require its employees to wear their masks all day, though some likely will, the architect said. But the biggest question is what to do about open area spacing, or work pods, that the company created to generate employee interaction. It would affect about 10 people. “It’s really the people in the open area that are the biggest concern,” Mr. Russeau said.

The company looked at staggering employees’ return to resolve the problem and possibly have the office staff reduced on Mondays and Fridays. “It doesn’t work,” Mr. Russeau said.

“I think what we’re going to end up doing is have people come back slowly permanently and that number will likely grow as people feel more comfortable,” he added.

Bob Mack, a vice president and principal at the Toledo office of Signature Associates, a commercial real estate firm, said for so many years clients have been seeking office space that can accommodate a high density of people and now people are asking how that space will work in the near future.

“It doesn’t,” Mr. Mack said. “There’s definitely a transformation to more elbow room.”

Thus far, Mr. Mack, an office space specialist, said the more space/less space topic has gotten more discussion in trade journals than in the marketplace.

“Architects and space planners, they have to go back to the drawing board,” Mr. Mack said. And everything has to be re-thought.

Take elevators, for example. “Elevators are made to take peak loads at the end of the day. Folks could be waiting a long time if we have to do social distancing while in elevators.”

Conference rooms are also a concern. “The reality is, maybe you have 17 people that are supposed to be in the meeting room, but in the future maybe there are four in there and the rest are people on a big TV screen,” Mr. Mack said.

At Reichle Klein’s offices on the 26th floor of the Fifth Third Building, Mr. Klein said he, too, has had to think hard about how to adapt the company’s workspace to accommodate 50 employees.

He installed sanitizer stations, erected Plexiglas where needed, and requested employees in offices to close their doors. Employees also are returning on a staggered basis.

But Mr. Reichle said he’s unlikely to make large permanent changes to the office because he cannot tell how long they might be needed.

“You know, after 9/11 the prediction was that nobody would ever go back into an office tower again. Office towers were dead,” Mr. Reichle said.

“But a short time afterward we were back to leasing office tower space that initially we thought was a trend that was dead. After that initial anxiety passes and you switch off that inertia to change, you go back to what was occurring before that traumatic event,” Mr. Reichle said.

Inertia will be a countervailing force in determining how workplaces change due to the pandemic. There is impetus to change the office now, but most office tenants are on long-term leases, Mr. Reichle said.

“Unless you happen to be approaching a lease termination, which would open a window where you could radically remake how you use space, you will probably wait to see how this plays out,” he said.

“Hopefully this event will be in the rearview mirror before (tenants) have a chance to make long term changes to their space,” Mr. Reichle said. “What do they interim, that remains to be seen.”


Posted By: Toledo Blade on June 14, 2020.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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