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Pendulum Swinging Back Away From Open Offices Due To Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic scrambled all expectations about the office market. Many corporate leaders say the work-from-home model has been quite successful, and plan to let a portion of their workforce continue at home even after the pandemic subsides. But many also say mentoring new recruits and building a healthy corporate culture can’t be done on Zoom calls. That means even though no one knows how much space companies will need in 2021, landlords, brokers and property managers still need to find safe ways for their clients and tenants to return.

“If we believed in the death of the office, I think all of us would have switched career fields,” Avison Young Senior Consultant Jillian Brown said during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: Office of the Future webinar.

But meeting clients’ needs in this era will involve more than finding their correct price points or providing an attractive office design.

HKS Architects' "living lab" space at 125 South Clark St. in Chicago

“I think we all understand that innovation, flexibility and fluidity in flex office solutions is more important than ever,” Brown added.

One of the biggest challenges is that there are few, if any, models for providers to follow as they entice users back.

“It’s pretty clear that no one has gone through this before,” Industrious President Justin Stewart said.

“But you’ve got to get members to come back to the office, and they’re not coming back to the office for the wine-and-cheese Wednesday happy hour. They’re coming back to the office when they feel comfortable doing that. Safety is obviously the most important thing for our community managers when members come back into the spaces.”

There is no one silver bullet, but in addition to HVAC systems that provide more outside air, providing personal protective equipment and plexiglass screens, thinning out furniture in public areas, requiring masks and social distancing in public spaces are just a few of the adopted strategies in Tishman Speyer’s Studio coworking spaces, Managing Director Amy Preston said.

“We’re also encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their own wellness,” Wright Heerema Architects Design Director Scott Delano said. “No building owner, no landlord and no company is responsible for you being well. What we can do is make an environment that helps support your ability to choose that easily and seamlessly, and making sure people are able to be responsible in this and work effectively, and still have the social component that’s so important in creating office culture.”

Clockwise from top left: YES! Your Exceptional Space President Wendy Spreenberg; Tishman Speyer Managing Director, Construction & Design Amy Preston; Wright Heerema Architects Design Director Scott Delano; Industrious President Justin Stewart; Avison Young Senior Consultant Jillian Brown

The physical layout of office space is already changing, according to Wendy Spreenberg, founder and president of YES!, Your Exceptional Space, a flexible workspace consultancy across North America.

“We’ve spoken to about 75 different locations in the last several months, in 17 states, and the things they’re doing are twofold,” she said. “Where they can, they’re adding more private space and reducing the amount of the open footprint, and they may be taking away from some of the café space or some event space.”

Delano said such changes may end up being seen as needed corrections to the open office concept.

“The things that made the open office great for some organizations, particularly ones that are highly collaborative, or for whom that quick communication through the open office was useful, it will continue to be useful, and it will continue to be a powerful tool to keep that innovation flowing. They may be doing that collaboration through a clear plastic screen for the immediate short-term, but it’s still going to happen.”

For others, including law firms and other companies that still need more private spaces, it could be an opportunity to change.

“It gives people permission to not have to look like Google, if they’re not Google,” he said. “The pendulum probably swung too far toward open office; now it’s going back.”