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‘Isolation Is The Enemy’: Next-Gen Office Designs Focus On Togetherness

At the Vital Proteins headquarters in Chicago's Fulton Market, an atrium spans two floors and features a stadium-style staircase and full-scale barista station.

Decision time is approaching for Chicago’s biggest office occupants. Companies that have been delaying their office return plans are now facing the choice of whether to renew their leases, find new space or even overhaul their entire real estate strategy. 

“We’re seeing an uptick in tours and leasing activity, as well as clients who are ready to move forward with their pre-Covid real estate plans again,” said Andy Halik, a vice president at Skender who helps lead the Chicago construction firm’s interiors group. “They’re not looking to kick the can anymore.”

In Chicago, many of the companies setting the tone and pace of the return are those interested in the recently converted warehouses and new towers being developed in Fulton Market, an office submarket that has swelled over the last decade, attracting tech giants, law firms, design agencies and other corporations that pride themselves on culture driven by architecture and design. 

The new challenge for these companies is not just to create spaces that are functional and cost-effective, but spaces that attract people to collaborate, coexist and build corporate culture, even for employees that may only be coming in a few times a week.

The yearlong experiment in working from home has shown companies the value of flexibility and how crucial it is to give employees control over how and where they work and even who they sit and work with on a daily basis. But 2020 has also revealed the negative impact on employee health when engaging with co-workers in an office environment isn’t an option.

“We are human, we want to coexist, and isolation is the enemy,” Halik said. “The challenge of designing an office now is creating a space that encourages flexibility while solving the problem of isolation by offering what the home office can’t provide: space that brings us together.”

Many of the companies in Fulton Market are anticipating that on average, their offices may only host around 70% of the staff that they hosted pre-pandemic, and Halik said most are looking to cut back slightly on their overall office footprints. But those reductions are likely to come from individual work areas, not collaboration and client experience space.

After a year of working alone and hosting video calls, the Fulton Market crowd expects its employees to be starved for collaboration and connection. Employees may choose to come into the office on days they need to meet face to face with colleagues, to give presentations or to welcome guests and visitors. Accordingly, conference rooms and other open areas for teams to meet are likely to stay the same or expand, as will event spaces to host celebrations or guest speakers. Those changes should make days spent in the office feel more purposeful and special, Halik said.

The Fulton Market office space of Mondelez International features a café-lobby open to the public, two connecting stairwells, outdoor roof gardens and a wide range of conference rooms.

For many organizations, the idea that every employee must have a personal desk is fading. Halik said he is seeing more demand for nontraditional seating, including long high-top tables, as well as for spaces that can be cleared for large-scale gatherings and events. Some companies are creating online reservation systems for individual desks, while others are looking to create desk “neighborhoods” that allow small teams to gather for periods of a few weeks at a time to collaborate on projects. 

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the shoulder-to-shoulder density of modern offices was seen as a health risk. But as vaccinations become more widespread and fear of contracting Covid recedes, parts of the office may expand, but actual seating areas are likely to stay just as dense. 

“Companies are looking to build more places for people to coexist and feel something that makes the office a compelling place to work,” Halik said.

Finishes that make the office beautiful — like biophilic design, art and wood accents — are on the rise, as are upgrades to daylight and air quality

An office renovation or tenant improvement budget can be stretched a lot further by a contractor who knows the local market. Halik said that understanding the logistics of each building, localized construction activity and even parking within Fulton Market has given Skender clients more financial room to tailor their offices to their particular needs.

With the pace of vaccination rising, workforces may be ready to return to the office in a matter of months. But companies are also facing another deadline: While low demand kept construction pricing down during the pandemic, prices for tenant improvements and other small projects could shoot right back up as soon as the first wave of office users make their decisions. 

“There is a real financial benefit to making a decision now, before others have jumped on the bandwagon,” Halik said. “We see the improvements in market confidence happening fast and when the tipping point comes, pricing advantages will quickly evaporate.”

This article was produced in collaboration between Skender and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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