The very idea of “space” has been turned on its head in the wake of COVID-19. Will office users still need the same amount of space going forward? Will the space they do lease out look and behave as it used to?
One panel during last week’s Commercial Real Estate Forecast Conference looked to answer those questions and more. Steering the discussion was Janeen Harrell, AIA, NOMA, associate at G|R|E|C Architects and 2020 AIA Illinois president.
According to Tyler Lamkey, senior vice president at Riverside Investment & Development, his and other firms proved to be very reactionary when the pandemic clamped down last March. Riverside conducted internal research and surveys to see what steps they should do for their properties at multiple stages of development—from recently completed buildings to those that had just broken ground.
They concluded that, for office properties, they key aspects to focus on are air systems, elevators, touchless capabilities and operations/communication. Riverside added sophisticated supplemental air systems that were designed for more intensive environments such as in healthcare spaces. They also upgraded filtration systems and installed real time air quality monitoring.
There’s little that can be done about elevators that are already installed in a building, but Lamkey pointed out that destination dispatch systems, designed for greater efficiency, can also help control the number of people sharing a car. Automatic revolving doors—another feature common to the healthcare space—are now migrating to office uses.
For projects still under construction, there was time to pivot based on tenant demand. While fitness has always been big component of modern office amenity packages, the pandemic has skewed that a bit.
“In our most recent iteration at 320 S. Canal, we had two fitness rooms and decided to scrap one and turn it into a minute clinic,” Lamkey said. “I think what you are going to see is tenants, led by employees, are going to demand wellness for the foreseeable future.”
Scott Delano, design director and associate principal at Wright Heerema Architects, echoed this sentiment. There was already a greater focus on health and wellness before the pandemic, he said, but COVID-19 exacerbated this trend.
Delano also said that, when employees do start to return to their offices en masse, it’s important to understand what they are coming back for. One thing that pandemic has taught us is that we work differently than we may have previously thought.
“This massive, unplanned experiment forced us to be more adaptable. Before the pandemic, we were looking at efficiency, but there is a certain fragility that comes with that,” said Delano. “When change comes, you are at risk.”
No large organization is monolithic, Delano said, and many of his clients are looking at their various work groups to suss out which ones can continue to work from home, which ones need to be in the office and which ones can operate on a hybrid of the two.
Sam Zeller, COO at Zeller, said that communication is the biggest concern among returning tenants in his buildings as they want to know what has been done to make the space safer. Many of the changes implemented since the start of the pandemic were redeployments or reconfigurations of existing technologies and operations. Zeller said that part of his landlord-tenant communication structure has been reacquainting them with features they may have forgotten about.
When it comes to repositioning a space in a post-pandemic environment, there are many factors to consider. What will tomorrow’s tenants want that today’s spaces can’t offer?
“Capital wants scale,” said Geoffrey Kasselman, senior vice president/partner-workplace strategy at CRG. “The converted use, from what it was to what it will be, is not a one-size fits all phenomenon.”
Kasselman recommends that, now more than ever, properties need to stand out and be different, they have to inspire users to take action, they need to engender a sense of community and they should encourage users to want to share the space with others, making it a truly experiential space.
“We are thinking about amenities as well because a lot of our bread and butter was upgrading buildings to compete with new, top-of-the-line properties.” Zeller said. “But what is really pulling people back to the workplace?”
The employee experience at the office isn’t the only consideration as working from home is a new variable. Creating an attractive space isn’t just about competing with other buildings, but individuals’ homes as well. So what are those differentiators that may bring an employee out of their home and back to the office? It could be a matter of convenience or of health and wellness. Perhaps the retail experience in the CBD simply cannot be replicated closer to home.