Over the coming weeks, executives are going to be inundated with articles and white papers telling them that, to survive in the post COVID-19 business world, they are going to need to completely change their space, their furniture and their employee densities. Already we are being told by furniture vendors, designers and brokerage firms that no one is going to want to sit next to each other anymore and to do so will be a safety hazard. Not so fast.
Immediately after 9/11, the consensus was that no one was ever going to ride in an airplane, live or work in a major city or develop, lease, finance or ensure a trophy office building again. We had just been hit with the worst foreign attack on our continent in over 200 years and people were rightfully very scared. While some companies decided to relocate to less high-profile office buildings as a result of these terrorist attacks, over time, there was a flight back to quality and the nicest, tallest buildings filled up. For most of us, our worst fears about the future when we awoke to a new day on September 12, 2001 dissipated relatively quickly. While we changed our building and life safety codes to address new risks, ultimately, businesses really didn’t change much about how or where they consume office space.
Distinguish between temporary and permanent changes in behavior
Now we are faced with a new life shattering event, COVID-19. Will companies reflexively change the way they build out their office space based on this once every 100 years occurrence or will they stop, take a breath and rationally determine which changes in behavior will be permanent, and which are only a temporary response to an acute problem? For example, our recent experience with remote working has proven that many jobs can be performed outside of the office and, as a result, these types of arrangements will be factored into future space planning programs. This and other fundamental changes in staffing such as outsourcing will no doubt reduce the amount of space businesses consume. On the other hand, changes to protocols or behaviors based on the fear of spreading and catching a deadly virus (i.e., distancing) are probably only temporary.
We are already seeing recommendations for changing panels on workstations from fabric to laminates, creating more individual offices, converting benched seating into workstations and building double wide corridors so that people don’t need to be too close to each other. These are expensive and long-lasting changes that are obviously a reaction to the heat of the moment. Most offices are currently laid out the way they are because the company’s management, in conjunction with their designers, decided this was the optimal layout for the employees given the company’s business and culture. While completely changing furniture systems and layouts will make a lot of furniture vendors, designers, landlords and brokers happy (if companies take more space), tenants may soon regret such reflexive changes if they detract from their business and impose significant, unnecessary costs.
Everyone wants to do what is best for their employees, and now, more than ever, their employees’ health, safety and wellness are front and center for every CEO. However, it’s important to remember that, even if everyone sat six feet apart today, most employees still wouldn’t be allowed in the office today. We’re in a pandemic and extraordinary precautions have been put in place to protect our health. This crisis, however, will hopefully recede into the past in the next 12-18 months. Americans have proven that they have short memories when it comes to catastrophes and they are likely to revert to old behaviors that are comfortable and convenient.
Rushing to make expensive and permanent changes to accommodate social distancing (as opposed to fundamental changes in remote working or outsourcing) may not only turn out to be bad long-term investments, but they may also have the unintentional effect of pushing people to work from home. Once the government-imposed quarantine is lifted, the main reason people will go into the office will be to interact with their co-workers and be near people—not to be isolated within a personal office or workstation. If they are going to cocoon themselves within their own individual space, they’ll be better off continuing to work from home (especially when the kids are back in school). Even if we give each other a few more feet of personal space, the workplace is still going to be a very risky place to be until there is a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. There are too many kitchen counters and appliances, doorknobs, bathroom stall doors and elevator buttons to ensure that you won’t be infected at the office. In sum, we’re either going to feel safe enough to go to the office or we’re going to stay home. If the office becomes an environment where we must isolate ourselves, wear masks and gloves and avoid touching anything, the office is doomed.
With respect to office design, there is a tendency to create something new every 10 years to keep things fresh and show progress. The problem is these changes don’t work for everyone and blindly following the latest and greatest isn’t a wise path forward for every company. Shortly after much of corporate America rushed to implement the “collaborative”, open plan work environments made popular by WeWork and other tech companies, Harvard University came out with a study saying people were actually less productive and even collaborated less in these types of layouts. Further, in some cases, the personal workspaces incorporated into many of these open plans didn’t correspond with the daily work tasks of the employees; it wasn’t a good fit. Blindly rushing to make design changes to your space because of an extraordinary, and hopefully temporary, pandemic will likely result in similar problems.
Certainly, landlords and tenants need to implement new policies and procedures to ensure the health of their employees in response to COVID-19. Already, some landlords are exploring heat sensing cameras in their lobbies to detect people with high temperatures. Fingerprint scanners are being replaced with security scanners that don’t require touching and there will probably be more security guards in building lobbies to direct traffic, control density and even push the elevator buttons. These are essential to monitor and control the risks of the current health crisis and should not require material, long term expenses. There may also be more material, permanent changes made to buildings as a result of this pandemic either by reason of mandated changes in health and building codes or because they are viewed as value added features that will appeal to future tenants. For example, landlords may decide to put expensive air filtration systems in their buildings as a selling point to tenants.
Any contemplated change in design or layout by a tenant should account for the fact that, like the Spanish Flu of 1908, COVID-19 won’t be around for long. When it leaves, a company’s office design and configuration need to make sense and needs to be cost effective. A blind rush to the latest and greatest could be very costly.