The case for office space in an era altered by coronavirus

Milwaukee real estate experts discuss pandemic's impacts on work environments

Floor decals designed by Coakley Brothers and Splat! dpi.
Floor decals designed by Coakley Brothers and Splat! dpi.

Last updated on June 16th, 2020 at 10:55 am

It is without a doubt people are living and conducting business differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Milwaukee area is no exception.

But local commercial real estate experts say the need for an office space will endure, even in an era where people are asked to avoid large groups and practice physical distancing from others.

A panel of experts shared their views on the near- and long-term future of office environments during a virtual event hosted by NAIOP Wisconsin Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s a permanent change, that people are going to be working from home,” said Alyssa Geisler, senior associate of CBRE Wisconsin in its office brokerage group.

Panelists gave a number of reasons why they felt people more or less will return to the office as things begin normalizing. Chief among those is the social benefit office environments provide, which also benefit the company’s bottom line.

Andrew Lasca, principal and project manager in Minneapolis-based HGA‘s Milwaukee office, said that surveys of the firm’s clients have shown the need for an office presence is still clear.

“All the surveys we’ve done, it’s that socialization, it’s that collaboration, it’s the amenities, it’s all those things at home that people want to come back to,” he said.

Jeff Hall, interior innovations officer of New Berlin-based CJ & Associates, said that remote work and virtual calls with colleagues misses important aspects that can lead to new ideas and better outcomes for companies.

He said that “water cooler conversations” that tend to happen after meetings aren’t happening right now with people working remotely.

“On a Zoom call, that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Another observable trend in recent years has been the movement of offices downtown. This reversed a general outward migration seen in previous decades. Some have posited that outward migration could happen again as a result of the pandemic.

But Geisler said she doesn’t see the trend of companies moving downtown reversing. She said the idea driving inward movement was to attract younger workers, who seek the attractions and amenities offered in downtown areas.

“In the long run I don’t really see that changing,” she said.

Perhaps some companies could opt for a “hub and spoke” model, she said, where they still have the large downtown presence but add satellite offices in places that are more convenient or offer a safer environment during a pandemic.

The panelists also discussed the immediate changes to office environments during the outbreak, and predicted which changes would remain in the long term and which will eventually go away.

They agreed that more permanent changes will be to the buildings and office technology, such voice-activated technology and air purifiers.

Dana Leland, workplace consultant with Milwaukee-based Brothers Interiors, said in the aftermath of the initial outbreak companies have implemented things like one-way walking paths and glass dividers while also having reduced the occupancy limit for conference and collaborative spaces, and have created staggered schedules for people who are working in the office so not everyone is there the same day.

But some of these immediate changes are likely not to last long term, she said. Leland said workers won’t likely continue wearing protective face masks, nor will they always be required to take their temperature before entering the office.

One thing she said she thinks will last is the greater flexibility for employees to work both at home and in the office.

“I think that will stay, and that’s because a lot of employees have wanted that for a long time,” she said. “Many companies have already operated that way, but many have not, and I think this will just force that to be accepted long term.”

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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