The end of stay-at-home restrictions for most of the state means many businesses can reopen, and their workers can head back to work. But for those who have shifted to working remotely, having the option to return to the office doesn’t necessarily mean they’re up for it.
According to a recent study by IBM, 54% of employees would like to work primarily from home.
IBM polled more than 25,000 U.S. adults during the month of April to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed perspectives on transportation, retail spending and event attendance, in addition to the way people work.
The large majority of respondents, 75%, said they would like to continue working remotely at least occasionally.
Such a shift has led to questions about the future of physical office space, especially as the threat of the coronavirus looms with no readily available treatment.
“I would say it’s somewhat of a concern for landlords,” said Lyle Landowski, chief operating officer at Colliers International|Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office.
Landowski pointed to the long-term possibility that tenants could have less need for space as employees trade in-person for remote work, but said that remains to be seen.
“In the short term, you will see a significant reduction in the occupancy of tenant spaces because there isn’t currently a vaccine for COVID-19, and to maintain social distancing and keep buildings and tenant spaces healthy, you just cannot occupy them at 100%,” he said.[caption id="attachment_505691" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Floor decals designed by Coakley Brothers and Splat! dpi.[/caption]
Colliers manages nearly 6 million square feet of office space across southeastern Wisconsin, including some of downtown Milwaukee’s newest and largest multi-tenant buildings, such as the BMO Tower, 833 East Michigan, 411 East Wisconsin Center and 100 East Wisconsin.
The process of safely reopening to full capacity is different for each property, with larger tenants moving back into their physical office spaces more slowly than smaller companies, due to their volume and higher risk of exposure.
“I think remote working and managing a remote workforce is definitely something companies have to think about,” he said.
When Colliers’ own Milwaukee office reopened at the 833 East Michigan building recently, employees were not required to return and could continue working from home if they felt more comfortable.
“What I’m anticipating is managers across the board are now much more willing to allow work-from-home policies and are a lot more sensitive to people who request to work from home because of things like health care issues or child care issues,” said Andy Hunt, director of Marquette University’s Center for Real Estate.
Hunt believes COVID-19 will spur changes in company policies, such as remote work flexibility, more than changes in office square footage.
Others are fearful increased remote work will hurt the office space market.
According to Marquette University CRE’s most recent commercial real estate industry flash poll, 70% of 286 respondents expect the extended period of employees working from home to have a negative impact on future demand for office space, while 45.6% expect the impact to be “slightly negative.”
The April flash poll was the second study CRE and several industry associations have conducted to understand the impact of COVID-19 on local commercial real estate.
Hunt said it’s too early to tell if COVID-19 will in fact have a negative impact on the industry, but his prediction is office space demand will be slightly down yet close to normal once things level off in two to three years. Getting to that place could be chaotic.
“You’re going to see people testing the waters on either getting a lot more space or really pulling back on their space,” he said.
Anecdotally, he’s heard from industry contacts in New York City that “a major Wall Street Bank” is in the market for additional office space to ensure employees are kept at safe distances from one another.
More likely, companies in the immediate future will simply work with the space they already have by reducing the number of employees in the space or reconfiguring the layout.
One idea is rotating staff in and out of the office during the week to reduce density, as well as limiting capacity of conference rooms and other common areas, said Hunt.
“You can imagine an environment where half the workforce comes in on Mondays and Wednesdays, the other half comes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and everyone works from home on Fridays, for example,” he said.
Employers can also bulk up on cleaning supplies so employees can feel free to sanitize their own workspaces anytime.
A hurdle for some companies will be stepping back from a popular modern design trend: the open-office concept.
Known for smaller workstations, more communal spaces, and overall reduced footprint, it’s essentially the opposite of social distancing.
“All of those aspects present a challenge in a new post-pandemic world where people need privacy in terms of their space,” said Ben Juech, executive vice president at Milwaukee-based Coakley Brothers and Brothers Interiors.
Coakley is currently working with a number of local companies, ranging from large Fortune 500 firms to small nonprofits, to divide physical space, develop flow plans and install new furniture so employees feel safe going back to work.
Temporary accessories like desk partitions, mobile screens, counter shields and rotating blinds can be added to an existing office layout to serve as barriers between employees. More permanent furniture such as the mounted “Hover” wall and the shoji-style “Square One” wraparound create private space within open areas.
Textiles and materials commonly used in health care facilities are now being integrated into office products to make surfaces easier to sterilize, said Juech.
Even basic products play an important role in keeping the office healthy, he said. Coakley partnered with Milwaukee-based Splat! dpi to design wall and floor decals directing one-way traffic flow throughout the office and reminding employees of safety precautions.
“When you have those visual reminders, even for something as simple as washing your hands in the bathroom, your brain just starts to think more proactively,” Juech said.
Companies are investing in their office spaces despite shifting preferences, he said.
In a post stay-at-home world, employees will be provided more flexibility to work from home, but that doesn’t mean offices have lost their edge.
“There’s a misnomer that people don’t want their own space in an office,” Juech said. “People do want their own space, but they want variety … People see the value and the productivity on their teams when they are able to be together in an office.”
As for the future of office space design, Juech expects there will be a happy medium between the pre-pandemic format of open, collaborative space and the current move toward private, individual space.
“But I think the focus on germs and infection control are here to stay because we do have to plan for these types of things to happen,” he said.