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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every facet of commercial real estate. The office market was particularly hit hard in 2020, as the pandemic created short-term uncertainty and raised questions about the future of the office.
Perhaps the biggest long-term implication of the pandemic for the office sector has been the rise in remote work. Companies are now looking at how to bring workers back safely, emphasizing productivity and collaboration in the office, in hopes of enticing workers back in over remaining at home.
BizTimes Milwaukee spoke with a number of local office design experts about those topics and more. The following is a collection of questions and responses from these conversations.
Experts include Scott Ramlow, president of Ramlow/Stein Architects; Jennifer Herr, senior interior designer of Eppstein Uhen Architects; Elizabeth Lewis, vice president of corporate marketing and Milwaukee sales of Chicago-based Forward Space; and Verna Shavlik, director of design services of Creative Business Interiors. Responses are edited for brevity and clarity.
What are the biggest trends to the office environment and design coming out of the pandemic?
Lewis: “One that I think is fairly well established and acknowledged but is super important – and I’m actually grateful that if there are silver linings from this experience that this one has popped up – is employers are really starting to recognize the role of the work environment and their objectives for employee retention and engagement, and truly as a standout tool for them to grow their teams and culture.”
Ramlow: “One of the things we talk about a lot is that reductions in the ‘me’ space need to be met with what we call increases in the ‘we’ spaces. That’s really based on an overall emphasis on engagement of employees and staff, developing relationships and understanding the social nature of work and the importance of our workplace relationships.”
How can companies create an office that entices workers back in?
Herr: “I think the draw is going to be providing spaces that your home office just doesn’t offer, which is essentially amenity spaces and places where larger groups, both virtual and live groups, can gather. We’re talking like rooftop terraces, conference spaces that are capable of hosting a ‘mixed-reality’ session (both in-person and virtual attendees). Fitness centers as well; I think catering to that emphasis on well-being is going to be important after we’ve all been through this. Any kind of space that emphasizes comradery and company culture because company culture is something that working from home isn’t going to offer.”
Ramlow: “The relationships we have at work – if you think about it, the people that you work with, even virtually, you interact with sometimes even more than your own family — these are important relationships in our lives. We need to understand that. In addition to providing flexible workspaces, we need respite spaces. Some of these areas are really not for work, but to get together and take a break, or have lunch.”
If a company opts for a hybrid work-from-home approach, how can they ensure time in the office is as productive and collaborative as possible?
Shavlik: “Changes post-COVID are going to be things like collaboration spaces with a technology component infused in it. So, if I’m in the office today, and I’m going to collaborate with a coworker that’s remote, how do I make that happen? And how do I collaborate in a meeting setting where those users that are remote feel like they’re actually part of the meeting, not that they’re observing a meeting? … How those rooms are set up, the size of those rooms, technology, furniture pieces, it just needs to be extremely flexible and extremely adaptable.”
Any recommendations for someone who’s partly or mostly working from home and wants to set up a dedicated office space?
Herr: “If you have the luxury of space in your home, I highly recommend dedicating it to function as your office only, at least for those hours that you’re going to be working. Be able to see views outside, but along with that, on Zoom calls (and) being on camera, your window outside should really not be behind you. It doesn’t lend the camera view to the greatest light on your face. Just pay attention to where the window is in your room.”
Shavlik: “(Workers need) a height-adjustable desk, good lighting, an ergonomic desk chair. We’ve really got to think about the health and wellness of the whole you, not just how you can get work done remotely.”
What other noteworthy things are you seeing?
Ramlow: “Some of the things we saw — partitions and plexiglass and all that — I kind of see that going away now. But I think … we need to have strategies still in place so that distancing could still be issued again, if we need to.”
Lewis: “One of the things that I think is super important is actually tied to a bigger organizational need companies need to address that is not specific to the space, per se. That is, equity in the hybrid environment. We, as a country, acknowledged a lot of inequity, but I don’t know how much we talk about it as it relates to space. It’s pretty significant, especially when we talk about hybrid (work). Hybrid seems really easy if you (have) a home office, and it’s well equipped, and the Wi-Fi is good, and you’ve got a comfortable chair. But is that equity across the board for our coworkers? Do they have the ability to have their own space?”