Rather than immediately downsizing, employers are considering revamping their workplaces in response to the work from home experiment.  According to Erin Fitzgerlad and Gordon Wright, panelists on Bisnow’s webinar Twin Cities Deep Dive: Future of Office, clients are rethinking how they use their space and how to make employees feel comfortable returning to work in light of COVID-19.

Wright, a leader in global workspace for HOK, says the pandemic has created “a pivot point for employers to focus on the wellbeing of employees rather than metrics like space per employee”.  These trends were underway before the pandemic hit but have really accelerated as employers struggle with how to attract employees back to the office.

Fitzgerald, the principal in the Minneapolis office of Transwestern focuses her practice on renovating and repositioning large office buildings.  “Employers are asking, ‘if my employees are productive at home, do I really need all this space?’  They are quickly learning that collaboration, innovation, training and mentoring are difficult outside an office environment”.  Since only ten percent of the office market is considering lease renewals at any one time, it may take several years to see the true impact of the pandemic on office use and design.

The most immediate trend to take hold is the protection of employees.  Landlords and tenants are working together to create one-way traffic patterns, restrictions on elevator use, testing and sanitizing stations, and plastic screens to protect employees.  “Landlords have worked around the clock to improve airflow, add air filters, and enhance cleaning protocols in response to the pandemic,” according to Fitzgerald.

Both Wright and Fitzgerald agree that the focus on healthy buildings and employee wellness is a trend that will accelerate in the coming months.  “Smart companies will create an individualized approach to employees returning to work, with an emphasis on agility and flexibility”, said Fitzgerald.

Recent innovations in remote work, co-working space and bench seating will evolve to create greater distance and comfort for users.  “It doesn’t mean these trends are dead,” according to Wright, “but there will be less of a binary choice of whether we do these things or not.  Everyone has gotten comfortable working from home on some routine tasks, like returning email.”  Still, collaboration and mentoring take face to face contact and employers will adapt to ensure that these important functions can continue in the new office environment.

“Nobody liked commuting to work five days a week, 9 to 5, working in a gray cube under fluorescent lights,” stated Fitzgerald.  “Let’s not go back to that. Instead, let’s talk about what we can do to make great gathering spaces where people want to come together and share the creativity of the human mind.”

In the competition between urban and suburban locations for tenants, both panelists agreed that there is a place for each office environment in the future. “You won’t see a departure from the urban core because there is energy there and amenities that attract creative talent,” said Wright.  “But suburban markets in Chicago, San Francisco and greater New York have become hot commodities recently as an alternative to bring people together in a place that is often easier to get to.”

Large companies are considering some of both types of space – gathering spaces for collaboration and creativity in the urban core and remote or co-working space in suburban or outlying areas for more routine, day to day tasks.

“Flexibility is working its way into deal terms,” said Fitzgerald. “Spec space, co-working space and renovated space allow tenants to address immediate needs without a lot of capital expenditure on improvements.” Landlords might agree to more flexibility on the amount of space and the term of the lease in exchange for higher rent. “It allows tenants to get up and running without a lot of out of pocket cost.”

Much of the decision about returning to work both here and abroad is tied to whether the pandemic is growing or contracting and whether kids will be allowed to return to school.  In places like Asia and Europe where the rate of infection has slowed, work-life is starting to return to normal and families are planning to send their kids back to school. In parts of the U.S., where infections are increasing, the future is much less certain.

Regardless of the outlook for the immediate future, both panelists agreed that the pandemic has accelerated the rate of change in office environments for good. “Employers will need more space because they realize they need a place for their employees to collaborate,” said Fitzgerald.  Wright concluded, “After years of focusing on densification, employers have realized that’s a terrible way to plan a workspace.”

Bill Griffith moderated the Bisnow panel and practices land use and real estate law at Larkin Hoffman.  He has an interest in topics focusing on the future of land use and sustainability and hosts a podcast entitled “Finding the Future” which you can listen to here.