In our last post we welcomed the following guests to introduce themselves, to share advice they are currently offering to clients as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and to share their initial observations surrounding property improvements as some businesses are beginning to re-open their doors to employees, customers, and clients:

  • Ericka Miller, Senior Vice President at KimbleCo
  • Heather Weerheim, Director of Business Development at Greiner Construction
  • Shari Bjork, Principal at DLR Group
  • Abigail Heimel Peterson, Healthcare Team Lead, Gardner Builders

In this post, we continue the conversation surrounding property improvements with Ericka, Heather, Shari, and Abigail. More specifically, we will hear about the wide range of changes currently being introduced to existing spaces, as well as the long-term changes anticipated in the coming years as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. What changes are property owners considering or implementing with respect to office design and open workspaces?

Ericka: What we have heard from business leaders, heads of real estate, national property managers and landlords is that they will follow local, state and national health guidelines and expect occupants to follow along. Because there isn’t a one size fits all approach, many are working hard to get plans back in place that are specific to their property and the health situation in their particular geography. Most notably we have seen:

    • Notices as to distancing expectations within the building common areas
    • New pathways with one way in and one way out
    • Capacity requirements in elevators and other small spaces
    • No gatherings in common areas
    • Increased cleaning in general but especially in high touch areas
    • Review and potential changes to their HVAC systems airflow and filtering practices.
    • Limiting space capacity at first and then allowing more people in overtime
  1. Have changes to scheduling of employees, such as staggered work shifts and increased use of home offices, resulted in any unique challenges or improvements to commercial space?

Ericka: It has certainly accommodated the need to provide physical distancing to those that are coming into the office.  Having fewer people allows for more space per person and supports physical distancing.  Because of the unknown future it is challenging for businesses in the short term to make decisions about space needs and, in particular, how much space they will need in the future.

Heather: We have been able to navigate this challenge of working from home rather quickly. The only noticeable change would be a lag in communication time early on. Internet issues, distance learning and other distractions while at home caused some delays in communication which can affect construction schedules.

  1. Post-pandemic, what pandemic spurred changes do you anticipate will continue to be integrated into the design of commercial spaces? 

Ericka: We have been doing a lot of listening to business owners and leaders – it seems the concept of high-efficiency space (meaning more people in less space) will take a back seat to the concept of proper spacing. This may get done through either expansion or simply having people/workgroups work in a more flexible way on different days or weeks which can be accommodated by the space tenants have today. While we, like everyone else, are hearing great things about work from home scenarios, there are many who simply can’t make this work at all times and strong collaboration still needs to take place in person.

It seems that the focus on wellness we were seeing in the years preceding the pandemic has taken off – really focusing on the health of the inhabitants of the building, not just the sustainability of the systems within a building. WELL building standards that focus on 7 key areas (Mind, Comfort, Fitness, Light, Nourishment, Water & Air) are key to human health and we may see a renewed interest in this type of programming even if just in concept without actual certification.

Finally, we are seeing a lot of innovation happening that would seem to be beneficial post-COVID.

Shari: In the future, we believe people will continue to work from home some of the time, but final percentages will vary by industry and job function. As the percentage of remote workers approach 50% or more, companies may consider shared desking, which may require a reconfiguration of space and allow a possible reduction in square footage. Emphasis on space designed for workstyle or work modes will be important as we encourage ‘quality time’ in the office, attracting individuals and teams into the office for planned interaction and team-based work.

People’s personal health and safety will continue to be a driver post-pandemic, which will push innovation in how space is designed and the products we specify for the built environment. Current social distancing guidelines will influence how much space we allocate to various functions, as well as how space is configured and furnished. We are already seeing changes being made to building mechanical systems and more importance put on the monitoring of indoor air quality. In addition, there are new products being researched and launched weekly, everything from anti-microbial materials, to rethinking elevator design, voice automated controls, and even American Standard is rethinking how bathroom fixtures can be designed to be safer.

Heather: Some of the things we’re expecting to see are as follows:

    • Conference rooms equipped for better communication via web-based meetings
    • Redesign of open office environments
    • Stricter guidelines for use of amenity spaces and/or a complete redesign
    • Enhanced HVAC design and air filtration

Abigail: Could you imagine a year ago having conversations about how we could most effectively utilize the flow of a parking garage to deliver care to patients at a clinic? Or who could have imagined how quickly the shift to telehealth in so many disciplines would become possible? I think we will continue to see a transition from the use of spaces and technology once seen as temporary to a new normal full of hybrid care delivery and creative design solutions.

  1. What is one of the most innovative or surprising changes you have seen to commercial space arising out of the pandemic?

Ericka: Innovation around wellness kiosks is an interesting change we have seen; the ability to assess temperature and wellness as employees enter the workplace.  Another innovation, indoor air quality systems and products that purify the air to remove airborne particulates and pathogens has been a study that will hopefully go well beyond the pandemic to benefit all building users for years to come.

Shari: I don’t think we’ve seen anything too innovative that has been implemented at this point. Both within DLR Group and the broader industry, COVID-19 has catalyzed really positive discussion about the future of workplace design. We are gathering data through our own surveys, and primary and secondary research, as well as through collaborations with our academic partners about the future of buildings, systems, public space and interior environments.

Most organizations are currently thinking about the short-term safety and health of their employees and the public. Coming out of the pandemic, this is a real opportunity to think about the overall well-being of a space’s occupants and how we measure the success of our real estate based on its value and impact on both the individual and the organization, versus measuring real estate on the basis of square footage per person.

Heather: One of the most innovative methods for bringing staff back into the office is the use of QR codes. Our larger corporate clients are using QR codes in the open office environment to share data and scan to reserve a workstation.

I’m surprised by the companies that have announced that their offices are not reopening until 2021. Who knows, they could be working on a complete redesign and preparedness plan in the background, however, if they believe that employees will be able to work in the same pre-pandemic environment come 2021, they will be mistaken.

Abigail: I wouldn’t call this entirely surprising, but over and over again we have seen the need for physical space to come together as teams inspired by our basic need for connection. Remote working and staying home when we needed to has proven to be entirely possible, but the need for space to come back together in whatever amount is most comfortable will likely always be there. I saw this in my own team and consistently talk about it with clients. We may never go back to the way things were, but the new normal still require a place to be together and collaborate.

Thank you again to our blog contributors for sharing their insights and experience with our readers! As we’ve learned from the last two posts, commercial spaces are already changing and will likely continue to look very different than they did prior to the year 2020. Additionally, while work-related values may stay constant, companies will need to be nimble and creative in their approach to property and the incorporation of possible improvements. 

Coming Up Next

In our final post, we will wrap up this blog series with a discussion surrounding a variety of lease provisions that both landlords and tenants may want to take a close look at in light of the pandemic and civil unrest.