Nearly a year after most offices emptied overnight due to the coronavirus and stay-at-home order, many desks still sit empty as employees work from home. While the pandemic is ongoing, vaccinations have started, meaning workers may soon return to their offices.
But the spaces they’re returning to likely will be quite different from what they were pre-March 2020, says Barbara Koldos, market development leader with Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction in Appleton. Not only will offices look different — think touchless screens for elevators and common areas, infrared temperature screens and plug-and-play desks — but space will be used differently.
“Buildings will be designed for full-time staff with part-time attendance,” says Koldos, who was one of three speakers at a Greater Green Bay Chamber virtual event looking at the future of offices. “The days of 9 to 5 are gone. Flexibility is key.”
Social distancing in one form or another will also be with us for a while since it’s seen as one way to stop the transmission of the virus.
Ron Dunford, president and CEO of Schreiber Foods in Green Bay, agrees. He says nearly 600 workers began working from home overnight last March.
“Early on, we wanted everyone back as soon as possible. It’s good for our culture, but now we understand we need more flexibility,” he says. “Looking to the future, we see a flexible, hybrid model as we reimagine our workspace.”
Some work still needs to be done onsite, such as activities in the company’s labs and certain business functions that require employees to come in once every two weeks.
When people begin returning to offices — Manny Vasquez, vice president of business development at NAI Pfefferle, predicts it will be sometime in the second quarter of this year — they’ll be in for some changes. He says businesses will need to respond to workers’ wishes about where they need to work.
“Offices may need to have flexible schedules — one group comes in Monday and Wednesday while the other comes in Tuesday and Thursday,” Vasquez says. “I think we will see more plug-and-play desks where someone can work for a full day or just a few hours. It’s about meeting employees’ needs.”
Back to the office
Once people began working from home, Koldos says some predicted the death knell for offices, but she says most employees want to return to the office on a full- or part-time basis. Hoffman worked with the Gensler Research Institute on a study that found 88 percent of workers want to work in an office at least part of the time.
“Human interaction is the No. 1 reason people want to head back into the office, along with delineation between work and home life,” she says.
Office design is changing as business owners seek a space that’s good for employees’ health, Koldos says. That can mean everything from open office space with everyone’s desk facing the same way, sitting 6 feet apart with plexiglass barriers to adding air purification systems.
“Space isn’t shrinking, there’s just a rethinking of how it’s all used,” says Koldos, adding one way design can help promote social distancing is by using carpet 6 feet around a desk to visually delineate how close people should be standing.
Some features, such as better air filtration systems or the addition of plants and more natural light, also are designed to improve workers’ health, she says. “Biophilic design — which incorporates plants, which improve air quality, is definitely becoming more popular.”
As employees head back into the office, Koldos says creating a workspace focused on hospitality is another growing design trend.
“We’re going to see more dynamic spaces to accommodate part-time attendees,” she says. “I think we’re moving more to a pop-in workspace with cafe- style high booth seating with some smaller breakout spaces. You really want employees to feel welcome while they’re there.”
While some large metro areas have seen a huge decline in the amount of office space being used — the nationwide vacancy rate is 15 percent, according to Statisa Research — Vasquez says that hasn’t been the case in the region. The total square footage of office space in Green Bay is 10 million compared to 80 million in Milwaukee.
“We are a smaller market for office space. In Green Bay, for example, there’s really only three large spaces (that are) vacant or will soon be vacant, which is about what it was before COVID,” he says.
Before the pandemic struck, some larger cities were already seeing a decline in the need for office space. A report from Moody’s Analytics from last August pointed out the sector was already struggling in big cities like New York and Chicago even before COVID-19 arrived. In large cities like that, office vacancy rates could top 20 percent within the next two years, the report says.
In Northeast Wisconsin, Vasquez doesn’t foresee the end of offices, especially since many companies
are focused on culture and employee engagement.
“That’s not going away and one way to sustain that is by having a physical office space,” he says. “It will need to be flexible, whether it’s smaller spaces where workers come or go as they want or a large space where people can be spaced out more.”
Businesses also can stagger employees’ start and end times, helping to reduce the number of people in the office at the same time.
Prior to COVID-19, Dunford says many businesses were against employees working from home, but they learned how to adjust quickly. As Schreiber looks to its future office space needs, he says there are several questions to consider, including what work needs to be done in the office and who’s the beneficiary
of that work.
“We need to understand how best and where the work is done. The outcome of the work is more important than where the person is working,” Dunford says.
Schreiber has already made some changes to its physical space, converting one of its floors into an innovation space.
“I see less transaction space and more collaboration space,” Dunford says. “We definitely see a continued need for office space, but it will need to be reimagined.”