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This Contractor Is Turning Its Own Office Into A Social Distancing Laboratory

Two days a week, Will Sutila has been driving into the West Loop, where he spends the day as one of the only people in the offices of Leopardo, a Chicago-based general contractor. Though Sutila said getting out of the house has helped his mental health, that isn't why he goes into the office. He's overseeing an experiment.

As landlords and business leaders think about how to keep employees safe once they return to the office, Leopardo is turning its own 24K SF office into a case study for best practices that promote social distancing.

Leopardo Office reception
The reception desk at Leopardo's headquarters at 210 North Carpenter St.

“If we can find what’s most effective for our own employees, from the simplest tweaks to more elaborate changes, we can create a playbook for all our client’s projects,” said Sutila, who serves as Leopardo’s director of business development. “It will help everybody feel safe if we can say, 'The changes we’re making in your office are the same as what we’re doing for our own employees.’”

Leopardo, which completed construction on its new offices 18 months ago, plans to use its workspace as a sort of showroom to demonstrate what is possible in terms of tenant improvements and wellness. The firm has sketched out three tiers of social distancing preparedness.

The first tier involves small but fundamental additions to the office to keep employees at a safe distance and encourage strong distancing practices. These changes include having masks available as soon as employees enter and implementing floor markings or other wayfinding techniques to aid in keeping employees 6 feet apart and promote foot traffic flow in a single direction. There are also disinfectant measures like UV phone sterilizers and antimicrobial paint, flooring and finishes.

“Level one includes most of the simple things that companies will absolutely need in place when they open offices to employees,” Leopardo Senior Vice President Rick DuPraw said. “If they want to come close to fully staffing their offices, though, the changes stop being so superficial.”

The next tier includes light physical changes to the layout of office suites and building common areas. Tenants may need to rethink open reception areas, installing walls and touchless revolving doors to control contact with the outside. They can also break up kitchen and cafeteria rooms into separate break areas to encourage employees not to congregate.

For office owners, the second tier suggests implementing access control systems that track where visitors and tenants travel within the building, as well as lobby improvements to handle high-traffic times, such as rush hour or midday, when hundreds to thousands of employees may want to enter the building.

Though these changes might seem complex, DuPraw said they are made much simpler by the fact that Leopardo performs many of its own trades. The firm can deploy carpenters and other laborers quickly without having to coordinate with other companies. 

Leopardo also offers a decommissioning service that can remove and store furniture or even demolish rooms that need to be repurposed.

When designing its new headquarters, the Leopardo team chose to prioritize private office spaces over open collaborative space, which has prepared it better for this crisis than many other companies. 

“Once we’re back in the office, we might still be videoconferencing, even if the other attendees are just down the hall,” DuPraw said. “Employees will prize private offices. We’re anticipating seeing companies asking for more private spaces when they renovate.”

This Contractor Is Turning Its Own Office Into A Social Distancing Laboratory

The third and final tier that Leopardo has devised includes a combination of design and consulting services to bring employees back into the office and boost productivity and happiness in ways that go beyond the current crisis. 

One of the services involves reworking open office layouts to more resemble the model Leopardo chose for its office — an emphasis on private space, with more boundaries between employees and less dense benching. These changes also include modifications to HVAC systems to reduce pathogens and other particles in the air and elevator programming to keep employees moving efficiently while they may only be able to ride one or two at a time.

The good news, Sutila said, is that many of the changes employers make to their buildings are updates they might have already considered to promote wellness among employees. Leopardo’s offices are among the first in Chicago to seek WELL certification

“No one is going to want to feel like they’re stuck in the office the same way we feel stuck at home right now,” Sutila said. “Many of the wellness updates help in that regard, from providing more fresh air and natural light to using natural barriers like plants around the office. People are going to have to feel safe, first of all, but they also need to feel sane.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Leopardo. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.