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Commercial Real Estate

Preparing For Re-Entry: Experts Share Key Strategies For Getting Back to Work

A successful re-opening of office and commercial space is all about preparation, safety, and sense of place.
For many of us, home has become work with COVID-19 requiring that we shelter in place. Now, as talks about re-entry begin, so have questions about what that will look like.

Let’s be clear: the offices you left are not going to be the offices you return to. The pre-coronavirus workplace was designed for creative collisions; it’s now getting a makeover for the social distancing era. And people are confused.

A recent Bloomberg article described the situation as a “mash-up of airport security style entrance protocols and surveillance combined with precautions already seen at grocery stores, like sneeze guards and partitions.” I spoke with a number of industry experts in Dallas-Fort Worth to gain a better understanding of our new normal.

The path to business recovery is evolving and fluid, but here are some things we do know.

Experts say the return to the office will require a carefully choreographed course of action and long-term efforts. Some of the critical design techniques to consider are reconfiguring flex spaces, going back to assigned seating, and tracking who sits where to help facilities teams prioritize cleaning plans for areas being used.

Cushman & Wakefield, which recently released a comprehensive guide for real estate tenants and landlords, says the experience with clients in Asia suggests that reopening workplace and commercial establishments requires a great deal of forethought. Business leaders across the United States are improvising as fast as they can to prepare for the return of employees, even as the coronavirus is far from over.

Experts say company leadership should be asking questions such as: Should there be a balance between on-site and remote work? What is the best way to use the time when people are physically together? How much physical space might be required–given the shift in workplace dynamics? How can people set up areas in the workplace (and at home) that support an increase in virtual engagement with clients, partners, and other team members? Do we have a plan in place if reopening fails?

How those questions are answered will truly set the tone for the future of office space–and much like everything else we have seen with coronavirus, we are facing a lot of unknowns.

cindy simpson gensler co-regional managing principal
Cindy Simpson

“COVID-19 has created an extraordinary time in our history, disrupting everything from work styles to information systems to supply chains,” says Cindy Simpson, co-managing director of Gensler’s Dallas office. “We have never experienced anything of this magnitude before. It’s a call to action for how we need to think about designing for resilience, not just in terms of sustainability, but also to adapt to change.”

To do this effectively, Simpson said companies must have a way to measure what they’re trying to achieve so that space planners can design that intention into the built environment.

“In the long-term, the next frontier in workplace design will emphasize building better data and analytic systems for commercial real estate and offices to learn more about the space itself and how people use it,” she said.

In the short-term, businesses should prepare for a more discerning workforce that will expect continuous, credible assurances that they are working in a safe environment.

Brigitte Preston

Brigitte Preston, principal interior design director for Perkins and Will’s Dallas studio, said her firm’s research shows that getting back to a level of psychological comfort is vital.

“I think the bigger picture is we have to be resilient, we have to be adaptable,” she said. “We should use these events as a way to use our ingenuity to come up with solutions that will be better in the long run.”

Preston points to things like air quality and smart building technology.

“If we use technology to indicate those things, I think that will go a long way to help people feel safe, but it’s also healthier, right? “We can use these strategies to create spaces that are going to be, in the end, healthier and better for us.”

There are no guidelines on how many people to phase into the office beyond the six-foot distance measurement. Among the resources out there, Cushman & Wakefield created a Recovery Readiness Task Force and launched a social distancing product called Six Feet Office. (Click here to watch a video to learn more about the six-foot office)

According to the firm’s report, this will include transparent displays of updated safety, health, and wellness information and resources for employees, visitors, and occupants throughout the building and specific workplace.

The Six-Feet Office by Cushman & Wakefield

“It is extremely important to the health and safety of people around the world that organizations take well thought through precautions when introducing their employees back to the workplace,” said John Forrester, President of Cushman & Wakefield and Executive Chair of the RRTF. “Our workplace experts, in conjunction with our top researchers, have created this guide to make this monumental migration from home more approachable, with quick and customizable solutions that are cost-effective to implement.”

To create its recovery readiness guide, the firm leveraged insights and best practices from its recent experience moving 10,000 companies and nearly a million workers back into 800 million square feet of buildings it manages in China through a joint venture with Vanke Service. (See details at right.)

It’s also important to think through the best way to use the time when people are physically together, and how to provide enough—but not too much—space for those activities, said Simpson from Gensler. “By taking proactive steps to create healthier environments, businesses can better provide employees with a work experience that supports wellness and productivity throughout, without sacrificing aesthetics,” she said.

Larry Kelso, who recently returned to Cresa as senior vice president of workplace consultant and program manager strategy in the Dallas office, says he has been fielding a lot of calls about this exact topic. Frankly, people are afraid, he said, which often comes from conflicting information.

Larry Kelso

Kelso, who has spent the past 30 years helping occupiers with program management and workplace strategy solutions, says he puts his trust in large firms like Corgan and Gensler, which have large R&D departments, and furniture manufacturing companies like Vari, Steelcase, and Teknion, which are spending a lot of resources on coming up with products for the new normal.

“People are calling for workplace strategy because of the emergency,” Kelso said. “The real type of workplace strategy is not when we are facing a crisis; it is an ongoing experience where the best of consultants maintain extremely agile relationships with clients throughout the lease term. Do deep dives about what is going on in the departmental departments and ask: How do we modify the workspace now to make sure we are operating at the highest productivity for the lowest cost?”

All of that is evolving. Part of it started five years ago when design firms recommended to clients that instead of having so many different standards, the key is to get a rhythmic module of space to remain flexible.

“People that engaged in that way of designing space are light years ahead of people who didn’t embrace that. The fewer you have, the more flexible you are,” Kelso said. “Those who did not embrace a minimalistic common standards approach will move towards that to increase flexibility to make workplace changeable.”

When it comes to calming employee’s fears, a lot of what is done at the workplace will depend on who the landlord is, Kelso told me. High-rises, for example, have more robust service capabilities for cleaning and promulgating rules and regulations that will help with safety.

Some things we are beginning to see are distance or infrared temperature scans at the door as the first line of defense, limiting people in elevators, and creating written protocols about safety distances in the lobby and elevator.

Kelso said he has been on numerous calls with insurance companies about how they have to change their coverage, what are risks and exposures–the answers are diverse and complex. Property management companies will develop dictates.

“For less sophisticated owners, it will be up to the tenant and occupant about protocols they want to employ–they don’t have natural access to all of this information or internal resources to do due diligence,” Kelso said “They will be slower to implement.

“There is a lot of information that is coming out, just like we didn’t know what we didn’t know at the beginning, we won’t know what the best practices will be until we start to employ,” Kelso added. “The key to everything is staying aware. And staying flexible. Especially in the short term.”

Jason McCann

I recently spoke with Vari CEO Jason McCann after reading a LinkedIn blog he wrote about what a “new normal” would look like in workplaces, as businesses begin to reopen. I wanted to know, specifically, what this new office space will look like–would it be some kind of combination of the old cube farms and today’s open floor plans?

Vari, which is most known for its disruptive sit-stand desks, was already the process of revamping its Coppell headquarters when COVID-19 hit. Here is a rendering of what the company’s space looked like before renovations:

Vari’s headquarters before renovations (courtesy Vari)

And here is a rendering of the new space, where employee workspaces are spaced six feet apart, with privacy panels and natural barriers like “living walls” added. The company has gone beyond its signature desks and expanded into wall systems and lighting systems.

Vari’s renovated headquarters space (rendering courtesy of Vari)

“Social distancing has such a negative connotation and takes the human element out of it, so we simply look at work spacing as distance-based workspace design,” McCann said. “It’s thinking about what are the smart ways that we can dream about the workspace of the future, and allow it to evolve and change over time as our needs change.”

For example, if the latest mandate is six-foot spacing from the way people are physically establishing a workspace, allow those collision points and other gathering points, but encourage traffic flow patterns.

“We’ve got areas of privacy, areas where people are spread out a little bit more, and less dense is really a macro trend that is probably not going to go away, which is not a bad thing,” McCann said. “I think it’s going to be a good, healthy thing for really thinking about the health of people, as well as the health of organizations and cultures.”

For a long time now, open offices have been a trend, and companies were saving costs per square foot. That was already beginning to change. At WeWork, McCann said, the average desk used to be 48 by 24 inches.

“Well, that’s too small when you start putting rows of that,” he said. “I don’t see that standing anywhere. We don’t even make a product that small. But I think that six-foot distancing is just going to be a nice new gauge of how people think about workspace when they’re doing layouts and configurations.”

One might see clear acrylic panels defining individual workspace, but the Vari CEO does not see us migrating back to old cube forms or anything from an energy perspective. “The only thing we know for certain is that things will continue to change and that we need to stay flexible and adapt,” McMann said.

Gensler’s Simpson said this about spacial design in the office has a tremendous impact on collaboration and culture. It’s the conduit for building community, sharing in a common culture, and strengthening relationships with each other, she said.

As of the first quarter of 2020, nearly 70 percent of all office spaces were primarily or partially open plan in design, according to a recent JLL report. That will all change in the new reality. People have already been asking for more “me space,” a trend already being recognized in some new office designs.

I recently toured Katten Muchin Rosenman’s new law office near Klyde Warren Park. Inside, retractable glass walls opened and closed space, as needed.

Whether they are opaque of made to look like whiteboards, our experts say those types of walls give the illusion of a wall without that feeling of confinement that sheetrock portrays.

McCann says such trends will be accelerated in the aftermath of COVID-19. “As we started to put up more walls and create spaces, it allowed us to create these natural areas that people could use, or not use,” he said. “But I don’t see us going back to the 1985 cube farm that my parents would have worked in.”

And, this all doesn’t necessarily mean people will flock back to their offices. In fact, across the board, experts are saying that part of the new normal will be an increased number of employees working from home.

“I don’t know that we will ever come back away from a significant amount of people working from home,” Kelso said. “People have learned during this pandemic; it is pretty easy to work from home, especially when people are enabled with good technology. Almost everything can be done from home. But the lacking component is there is a dynamic that has become evident through the pandemic, just the pure social interaction and the dynamic sharing of ideas, concept, and work by being physically present with each other.”

But in a world of unknowns, what the future will look like is anyone’s guess, said Kelso: “Who knows … This is pure speculation.”