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As Some States Lift Restrictions, CRE Gets Ready To Go Back To The Office

Cushman & Wakefield's Joseph Lising is ready to get back to work.

"I feel like I'm ready now," said Lising, a managing director of retail at Cushman & Wakefield's office in Irvine, California. "It was a good break. I'm itching to restart the engine overall."

As tens of millions of people line up in the unemployment line and others work from home or worry about the stability of their jobs, there is growing pressure on the federal government, states and local municipalities to loosen or shorten shelter-in-place orders so people can get back to work. Several states and cities are already easing their restrictions.

Progressive Real Estate Partners retail leasing and sales specialist Roxanne Klein
Progressive Real Estate Partners retail leasing and sales specialist Roxanne Klein

For the past several weeks, commercial real estate landlords and businesses have been preparing game plans for how to safely reopen their workplaces.

What will this new workplace look like? Will employees be required to wear masks? Will office desks have tall plastic dividers in between them? Will employees be allowed to hug or shake hands with one another, let alone a client? How far apart should people sit or stand from one another? Most importantly: Is it safe?

"Whether it's May 15 or June 15, at some point people are going to get back to work," Rising Realty CEO Chris Rising said. Los Angeles’ stay-at-home order extends through May 15.

"People are going to be nervous. People are going to be scared and businesses are going to have to be more nimble than they have ever been. We're going to be dealing with a whole new set of social norms on how we interact and a whole new way of doing business."

Rising Realty, a Los Angeles-based property manager and owner, has been consulting with Gensler and others as it prepares its team to safely open its office buildings, which encompass 5M SF in Southern California and Denver.

Rising said it has implemented several new policies for its buildings: Visitors have to pre-register before entering a building; all employees of tenants, visitors and building personnel must wear face masks inside the building; valet drivers will place a plastic wrap on the steering wheels of visitors' cars before parking them; hourly cleaning of common areas; hand sanitizers have been set up at the lobby; and security and artificial intelligence will regulate the number of people that can occupy the inside of an elevator.

Rising did not disclose the cost of the additions, but said he is also awaiting an order of non-contact thermometer scanners, which his building personnel can use to detect a person's temperature. It will also place a large monitor in the lobby that displays the building's air particulates.

Tangram unveiled a workplace sanitization program as companies prepare their workers to come back to the office
Tangram unveiled a workplace sanitization program as companies prepare their workers to come back to the office.

Additionally, workers will find their desks separated by protective plastic shields and spaced apart. Rising said it is looking into creating some type of rotating schedule with its tenants so that thousands of employees don't come into the office building all at once.

For its employees to get back to work, Cushman & Wakefield has created The 6 Feet Office. The concept is being piloted in its offices in China and the Netherlands, and it is tentatively planned to be rolled out in the U.S. in early May, Lising said.

The 6 Feet Office concept is similar to the now-ubiquitous road markers on the floor in public spaces, but in an office setting. The company's office floors have been redesigned with signage, the desks are 6 feet apart, there are concentric circles that visually show how far apart employees can be from one another and other signage with distancing cues in elevators and other rooms.

Employees are also being asked to always walk the office clockwise, leave meeting rooms when asked and to change their desk pads frequently.  

Other tools have taken advantage of a blooming proptech climate. In the past couple of weeks, Gensler has created a software program called ReRun, a design tool that can take virtually any office floor plan layout and determine its ideal occupancy and spacing. Users can input current information about the space and select an ideal distance, such as 6 feet.

The program then produces a report that shows a visual representation of 6-foot bubbles on the floor plan, illustrating where workstations are too close together. Based on the number of workstations and overlapping bubbles, the report estimates what the reduced occupancy should be. Gensler designers then look at the floor plan and make some general suggestions in the comments section about how to improve the effectiveness of that workplace.

But ReRun is only intended to look at individual desks or workstations where people are sitting, Gensler said, and it is not designed for meeting rooms or large circulation areas, like break rooms.

Gensler's ReRun tool shows a visual representation of six-foot bubbles on the floor plan, illustrating where workstations are too close together.
Gensler's ReRun tool shows a visual representation of 6-foot bubbles on the floor plan, illustrating where workstations are too close together.

"It's not like it's a broad-ranging tool with lots of answers. We consider it more of a 'tip of the spear,' if you will,” Gensler Energy Practice Area Leader and principal Dean Strombom told Bisnow.

Openpath, a Culver City-based tech company that specializes in building access control released its own COVID-19 office safety checklist. The checklist includes reducing common touch points, mobile keyless entry, occupancy sensors and monitoring who comes in and out of rooms and buildings. 

"No one is going to want to touch anything after this," Openpath President James Segil said.

Segil said his company is involved in several discussions with building owners and landlords concerned about how to properly adjust their workplace for their tenants.

"There needs to be an investment that needs to be made right now, very quickly and very thoughtfully, about putting technology in place that allows people to manage occupancy levels and reduce people from touching common surfaces," he said.

Cleaning and disinfecting workplaces will also be mandatory in the coronavirus and post-coronavirus era. As part of that effort, Tangram has partnered with cleaning franchise Servpro to offer a new service called Tangram Workplace Sanitization, a program that allows its clients to deep clean and disinfect their workplace.

"That's No. 1," Tangram General Manager of Light Construction and Flooring David Teper said of cleaning. "There's been a lot of dialogue to ensure worker safety and trying to identify to what level and extreme companies should go through."

Teper said cleaning and disinfecting is the easiest thing a company or building owner can do. Other solutions that are being weighed include changing certain fixtures to copper or alloys bronze or brass, because some studies have shown it could kill the coronavirus within a certain time frame, according to reports.

Cushman & Wakefield's 6 feet office concept
Cushman & Wakefield's 6 Feet Office concept.

Other companies aren't yet ready to step into an office.

Progressive Real Estate Partners President Brad Umansky, who runs a small boutique brokerage firm in Rancho Cucamonga, said he is still about 30 days away from making a decision on whether he and his employees will come back to the office. 

"I am sure I will look at what others are doing and then make decisions," Umansky said in an email to Bisnow. "I can tell you that just as I did when we decided to go virtual, a couple of days before the governor mandated it, I will consult my team and make sure they are comfortable returning to the office as I do not want to put anyone in a position where they are not comfortable."

Gensler and CBRE have both told Bisnow they will not send employees back into the office unless they deem it safe. CBRE said its approach for companies includes assuring returning employees that the work environment is safe.

"We took a more comprehensive approach to look at it collectively across our global operations and build a composite that we felt represented that entirety of perspective and bias," said Lenny Beaudoin, CBRE’s executive managing director of Space Enablement Services. "Our intent was to create one comprehensive view on how organizations can respond."

Beaudoin said CBRE has worked with several clients who are reducing their seating by about 50% for the early weeks of their return to the office, and they are thinking about ways to prepare workers on how to behave differently in the office.

But he said the workplace in the coronavirus era will be fluid. As the situation evolves, new information about the coronavirus will influence how the guidelines are updated, as well as how CBRE adapts its own checklists and protocols. 

The Well Living Lab, a collaboration between the Mayo Clinic and wellness real estate and technology company Delos, announced Monday it plans to study the design and operation of workspaces to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. The lab is dedicated to identifying how indoor environments impact human health and well-being.

Other measures for CRE include using technology, ranging from automatic door openers and keyless entry to monitoring social distancing as a way to help employees transition back to the office.

“If we don't feel that it's safe for our employees to come back to work, regardless of what our state entities are saying, then we won't bring our employees back,” Strombom said.

Cushman & Wakefield Managing Director, Retail Joseph Lising
Cushman & Wakefield Managing Director, Retail Joseph Lising

Progressive Real Estate Partners' Roxanne Klein said she misses going into her office in Rancho Cucamonga, but she'll only go back if it is safe.

"My biggest concern is we go back to work too soon and it was a mistake," said Klein, a retail leasing and sales specialist in the company’s Inland Empire office. "If you look at our history and the Spanish flu, several states reopened too soon and the death rate doubled.

"It’s bad now," she added. "When we do go back, we need to make sure it’s the right time. I’m excited to go back but I hope to do so when it’s safe."

Klein said when people do eventually go back to work, co-workers will need to respect one another and their personal space.

Lising, the Cushman & Wakefield managing director in Irvine, is not too worried about his health when coming back into the office. His wife told him otherwise. 

"She said if I go back to work, I should get a hotel room and quarantine myself," Lising said. 

Lising said he has enjoyed working from home. He has his own office with a three-computer setup. He has a system in place to manage his and his team's workflow. He has also been playing the guitar and doing other self-improvement tasks.

Still, he said he can't wait to get back to Cushman & Wakefield's Irvine office, a 28K SF sleek and modern setting designed by Gensler and next to John Wayne Airport

"It's a nice office space," he said. "You can see the planes flying and landing ... It's breathtaking. There's an awe factor. It's a great way to bring clients in and make them feel comfortable."

He said he also misses the camaraderie. He manages a team of nine people. "There's a certain dynamic with your team in the office that you can't replicate working remotely," Lising said. 

Mostly, he said he wants to get back to work for one other thing: to help. The other day, he said, he saw the grim unemployment news. The number of people getting laid off is growing and many are in the sector that he specializes in, retail.

"I felt a little down that so many people are out of work," Lising said. "I'm itching to get the economy moving again."

CORRECTION, APRIL 28, 5:10 P.M. CT: An earlier version of this story said that CBRE is reconfiguring its own spaces to reflect 50% occupancy. The story has been updated.