Nearly four months after millions of office workers packed up their belongings for what many thought would be a short-term remote stint, millions—perhaps even billions—of square feet of office space still sit virtually empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though parts of the country have begun reopening with varying degrees of success, business as usual is likely out of reach for the foreseeable future. For business owners and their landlords, knowing if, when, and how to make the transition back to the office remain looming unknowns.
Savvy building and firm owners are not sitting idle, however. ARCHITECT spoke with five experts in office planning and design to learn what questions they are fielding from clients, what steps they are taking in their own practices, and what trends they expect to see emerge in office design when the right time to reoccupy the workplace arrives. From DLR Group are Jeremy Reding, AIA, a Seattle-based principal who leads the firm’s workplace practice; and Shona O’Dea, a Chicago-based senior associate who leads the firm’s high-performance design practice. Caroline Quick is a San Francisco–based senior principal at T3 Advisors, which has collaborated with DLR Group on several projects. James Woolum, AIA, is a Los Angeles–based partner at ZGF specializing in the design of corporate, health care, and institutional environments. Elizabeth Brink, Assoc. AIA, is a Los Angeles–based principal at Gensler, where she is also the Southwest regional director of consulting. (The responses are edited and compiled from three separate conversations.)
ARCHITECT: What concerns have you been hearing from clients and end users?
Reding: People are asking questions for pre-vaccine and post-vaccine scenarios. In the former, the questions that are coming up is how many people can be in the office? How do we handle spaces that we used for collaborating—conference rooms, social spaces, the water cooler, coffee, game rooms? Because that was why we really came into the office.
The post-vaccine part is the most exciting: Heads-down quiet space may be something you do at home more often, and the office might start to resemble shared desking mixed with mostly social, collaborative spaces. [Pre-pandemic,] many office cultures had said if you’re not at work, then you must not be working. That concept will shift now.
Quick: One question I’ve been asked is why do we need to go back to the office, especially when we have seen companies successfully working from home? Do we need to rush it? We are social beings—overwhelmingly, people want to go back to see each other, and have those informal “serendipitous” run-ins again. Because of the current state of the virus, we can’t be in close proximity to one another; even then, when indoors, we have to wear masks. Consider what that experience is like: When you are together with masks, you are still missing out on various non-verbal cues. When meeting virtually over video, you can at least see people.
O’Dea: I’m being asked how building operators can restart mechanical systems in a safe way. With buildings shut down, mechanical systems are typically off, and that’s never happened before. How can building operators ensure that the space is healthy? There are suggestions to increase the amount of ventilation in your space, add filtration into the supply air stream, or treatments to the return air stream, or to go to 100% exhaust while operating in a tight band of relative humidity. All these suggestions will have a dramatic impact on the energy balance of the building. For me, the biggest challenge is making sure that people understand when they need to do these things.
If you were a business owner, a building owner, or a landlord, what steps would you be taking now?
Brink: I would recommend that business owners talk to their employees to understand what’s working and not working with remote work, and their concerns and expectations for when they come back into the office. Gensler has been using a module of our Workplace Performance Index survey, which is focused on working from home and returning to the office, to help our clients to get feedback from their employees. We are seeing that there is a spectrum of readiness; people are at very different places of what they expect, what they need, and the environment they’re comfortable returning to
Woolum: The response needs to be slow. It needs to be driven by science and not out of a desire just to get back into the office. ZGF is having conversations with our landlords in each of our offices to understand the local requirements and recommendations in terms of how to get people safely into the public realm. I would start by taking the basic safety measures that have been discussed for months: social distancing, enhanced cleaning, and asking that people at a minimum wear a mask while in the public spaces of my building.
ZGF sent a survey to all employees to identify the high-level issues, one of which is how many people are willing or even able to come back to the office. The results indicate that 50% of people are currently uncomfortable returning to the workplace. This is likely to continue as we see spikes in many states and big cities.
Our current return to office plan has small groups of people—very socially distanced and with strict protocols in place—coming to the office on alternating weeks. Over time, if we see reductions in the number of cases in our cities and assuming we do not see cases arising in our own workplaces, we will slowly—there’s that word again—begin to add more people to each alternating work group.
Reding: For business owners, DLR has developed a list of 10 questions that you should be asking if you’re in a multi-tenant building. (At right.)
Quick: From a landlord’s perspective, now is the perfect time to be proactive and reach out to your tenants and say “here’s the plan,” “this is the way we’re thinking about it,” or “let’s collaborate and come up with new ways to think about this.” The real estate market will be a completely different world when we come back, and you want to instill trust in your tenants so they stay or expand your portfolio. Being responsive and in a way that makes tenants feel comfortable is going to speak volumes.
O’Dea: Some of the best practices that sustainability professionals were pushing before COVID are going to be more important—assessing design attributes that impact indoor environmental quality and deploying live monitors that verify a space is healthy. Before COVID, DLR Group had been working on a workplace scorecard with the General Services Administration that rated a building on a scale of 100 points, half of which are associated with health and comfort. The RESET standard for healthy air is also something we use a lot when deploying a grid of indoor air sensors to verify performance. I envision that tenants are going to be much more focused on the building’s mechanical system, and how it’s designed and operated.
What can architects bring to the table for their clients?
Brink: While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other credible sources have provided basic guidelines on physical distancing, architects and designers can help organizations create workspaces that are positive experiences for their employees who will occupy those spaces—environments that still feel compelling and gives people a sense of psychological and emotional safety. We need to look at a place as more of an experience.
Woolum: The responsible thing to do is to look at how to reuse your space in an effective and safe way. As designers, we can jump to all kinds of conclusions, but if this situation has taught us anything, it’s that things change quickly. We need to be agile.
Many people out there, such as furniture manufacturers, are suddenly showing “solutions.” A “solution” I’ve seen are Plexiglas screens so that you and I may be sitting in desks opposite to each other, but we would have this big glass screen between us. These screens are popping up at grocery stores, hotel reception desks, et cetera. I’m hearing that the cost of Plexiglas has gone up 25% in the last few weeks, and even when you order these sneeze guard screens, they won’t arrive for four, to six, to eight weeks. I fear that this is a bit of magical thinking: If I just buy this thing and put it on my desk, I’ve solved the problem. We have to take the problem seriously, but we have to avoid arriving at a conclusion so quickly that we overlook other opportunities.
Quick: There’s no proof yet that Plexiglas even works. The flu still spread when everybody had private offices. The things that people are talking about doing to ensure physical distancing in the office, such as caution tape on chairs or floors—that doesn’t make people feel safe about being in the space. If you’re going to put Plexiglas around desks as barriers, think about the sustainability aspect and the long-term effects. These are not solutions that we’re going to want in the long term.
When we went to the open office, we swung the pendulum super far and packed people in spaces in order to, one, have your real estate footprint last for a longer term, but also so people could closely collaborate. We found quickly that it didn’t work for a lot of people. We’ve been waiting for an opportunity to rethink work and space. We thought that was going to happen over maybe a year, but it’s been condensed now to a very short period of time. Being thoughtful about the changes that are going into place and keeping an eye on the long-term strategy are important things to consider.
Reding: The bumper stickers that people are putting all over their offices to tell people how they should walk around just look awful. If we said from the get-go: “This is what the future office is going to work like,” what would it be? Architects should design that. You can still have thoughtful spacing put in place, but maybe it’s just a decoration that’s on a 6-foot size. It doesn’t have to be an obvious overlay that feels like an ugly bandage.
The approach has to be holistic, and that must include the physiological side. There’s going to be a lot of training on how you bring people back into the office, and what that looks like. And people are going to be dealing with all kinds of things: Looking at hand sanitizer might be a trigger to somebody who [had a relative] pass away.
Quick: Leading with empathy will be important. You want to make sure that when people come back, the space considers the human element and is not just covered in stickers. What’s interesting is that more than ever, every single vertical is collaborating to figure out how to do this: architects, general contractors, engineers, and end users. Everyone is having more transparent, open conversations.
What type of work are you currently doing for clients?
Reding: There are two sides: The first is, if I have to lay my desks out differently, what does that do to my density numbers for new spaces that are being developed? What does that mean for our conference rooms? And then looking at pathways and removing doors to make transitions happen easier. More forward-thinking companies are saying: “How did we use the space before? How are we going to use the space in the future? Let’s rethink if we need to and pivot where we should."
O’Dea: Indoor air quality monitoring and HVAC auditing are services that are definitely becoming more popular. The number of requests we’re getting for RESET certification numbers is skyrocketing. But again that is quite reactive and the most value we see with IAQ monitoring is when it’s deployed over a longer period of time. Then there are clients who are trying to build onto that level of sensor intelligence and trying to operate for flexibility; if it’s not COVID-19, it’ll be something else. They’re trying to plan for a longer term solution.
What types of soft and hard infrastructure do you expect offices to incorporate?
Woolum: People’s expectations will be higher around opportunities to wash and sanitize their hands. We must plan for the infrastructure that allows people in public spaces, corporate spaces, and restaurants to have that opportunity. People will want disposable masks and possibly gloves in a much wider variety of spaces, such as retail. On the hard infrastructure side, I’ve been wondering if we see a rise of hand-washing sinks in reception areas. You arrive in an office, and the receptionist says, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here. Would you mind stepping right here and washing your hands?”
O’Dea: Using sensor technology will become much more important now that we have this invisible enemy. We want to quantify everything we can so we can show in real time that yes, we’re ventilating the space and here’s the data to prove it, or we’re filtering the air and here’s the data to prove it. When we go back to the office, pre-vaccine, having this data will be incredibly important in building trust with occupants.
Quick: Many sensor companies are now modifying occupancy sensors so that they can help people see areas that have been cleaned or highlight areas that need to be disinfected because they’re high usage. Being able to make the decision such as “I don’t want to go to the café right now because there are too many people in there” puts the power in people’s hands to make decisions that work for them.
What should building owners do with their collaborative and impromptu gathering spaces?
Woolum: There will be phases to this process, which we are already seeing with varying degrees of success around the country. At some point—as allowed by authorities having jurisdiction and by science—we will go back to places, like offices, restaurants, and retail. We’ll be in a period of caution for a while, but eventually the need for humans to interact with each other and to have a shared personal experience will lead us back to collaborative spaces and office team rooms. The elastic band will eventually come back together to a point where we feel comfortable with those behaviors. But these behaviors will be forever changed by the experiences we’ve each had throughout the course of the pandemic. I’d say, “Hold on tight,” because we’re still in the middle of a sea change for human behavior and none of us yet know where this will land.