03 Nov Perspectives on the Road to Reentry
Perspectives on the Road to Reentry
After months away from the office due to the coronavirus crisis, employees are slowly making their way back into the workplace. Here’s how businesses are deciding when to return, the steps they’re taking to ensure employee safety, and the likely long-term impacts on office design and real estate strategy.
Fall 2020 | Written by Calvin Hennick
When workers left their offices in early March to hunker down at home and wait out the coronavirus crisis, many assumed they’d be working remotely for a week or two. After all, many of their employers had never encouraged (or even allowed, in some cases) remote work in the past, and it seemed unthinkable that COVID-19 would still be wreaking havoc many months later.
Fast forward to today, and it now seems unthinkable that COVID-19 won’t continue to shape the way we live our lives well into the future—at least until a vaccine or highly effective treatments make their way to patients. Facing this reality requires business leaders to make countless decisions about whom to bring back into the office and when, which safety measures to implement, and how to redesign office spaces for a work world that seems to be changing by the moment.
USGBC+ spoke with workplace design leaders to get their take on what’s happening now and what the future may hold. Here are their most striking observations and predictions.
Perkins + Will NYC office’s design is flexible enough to meet newly recommended practices and protocols due to COVID-19.
The Office Will Remain Important
First, let’s dispense with the notion that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to some sort of post-workplace world, where former office employees live out their entire work lives participating in Zoom meetings while wearing pajamas.
It’s true that many business leaders have been surprised by how productive their staff can be from their living rooms. Many have noticed nearly no drop-off in productivity—or have even seen a slight uptick—and that’s one reason most businesses aren’t rushing to bring their knowledge workers back to the office before it’s safe to do so.
Still, industry leaders say there’s no way to replace the collaboration and camaraderie of an in-person workspace over the long run. Even many of the same workers who once fantasized about skipping their commutes have grown tired of working in cramped and chaotic living spaces alongside their spouses and children.
“Some people who are going back early simply need to get out of their homes,” says Brent Capron, principal and interior design director for the New York office of the design firm Perkins + Will. “Some people are saying technology has drawn them back into the office. For those people in New York, and other urban offices, they have small living environments and they may need a change of scenery.”
According to “The Future of the Office” survey by CBRE Research, 79% of respondents say that the physical office will either remain as important as before, or will be nearly as important as before the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in the “U.S. Work From Home Survey” by Gensler, only 12% of U.S. workers say they want to telework full time.
Left: Nena Martin is a global workplace technology leader and director of workplace at Gensler. Center: Rives Taylor is a principal and global resilience research leader for Gensler. Right: Julie Whelan is head of occupier research for CBRE.
“It really varies by age,” notes Rives Taylor, principal and global resilience research leader for Gensler. “The surprise is, the younger professionals don’t like being home as much. It’s as much about the work as it is the opportunity to socialize, collaborate and learn.”
“If you have a Millennial employee or younger, they’re probably going to be in a smaller apartment, and maybe they have a young child, and it makes it really challenging to work and manage all these other things,” adds Nena Martin, global workplace technology leader and director of workplace for Gensler.
Although a future of “all remote work, all the time” seems unlikely, the experience of the COVID-19 crisis seems destined to make U.S. workplaces much more flexible well into the future. CBRE Research found that 70% of respondents indicate that some portion of their workforce will be allowed to work remotely full time going forward, and 61% say that all employees will be allowed to work outside the office at least part time. Also, according to Gensler, fewer than half (44%) of employees say they want to be in the office five days per week.
“There was a huge shift to remote work quite literally overnight,” notes Julie Whelan, head of occupier research for CBRE. “That caused people to adapt, even if they were unwilling to do so beforehand. The rate of change has probably catapulted us forward five years when it comes to remote work adoption.”
Short-Term Plans Remain in Flux
Despite the U.S. grappling with COVID-19 for more than half a year, there’s no consensus about how or when businesses should bring employees back to work. This is partly due to different regulations in different states, but also because it’s not always 100% clear which steps will actually increase employee safety and which are mere window dressing.
Capron points to the installation of plexiglass dividers as a step that might not be worth the investment. “A lot of places put those up to provide a short-term comfort level,” he says. “But I really question the long-term use. It’s a huge expense, and the air just goes up and over and around. When you start speaking loudly, it goes further. Wearing a mask is more effective because it covers you no matter what position you’re in.”
Whelan says CBRE Research’s findings show that companies in the Asia-Pacific region are much further along the reentry curve than those in the U.S. “The U.S. companies that are coming back are only allowing a very small amount of employees back in,” she says. “The things they said they were going to institute were things like health screening procedures, furniture reconfiguration, closing down of food and beverage areas—all the things you would think.”
However, Whelan notes, most companies aren’t making permanent decisions about things like office layouts until they have more information. “Until you understand who is going to be using your space, you can’t make too many decisions,” she says.
According to Gensler’s research, at least half of workers say they would feel more comfortable coming into the office if their employers enacted stricter policies against coming in sick (55%), increased remote work opportunities (52%), and increased office cleaning (50%). Around one-third of workers would be more comfortable with increased distance between workstations (35%), on-demand hand sanitizer (35%), touchless bathroom doors and fixtures (33%), and the installation of air purification systems (31%).
Viacom CBS was designed by Perkins + Will to encourage spontaneous collaboration and creative expression. Photo: Eric Laignel
Companies Opt for Phased Returns
The options for reentry are so varied that Perkins + Will published a 90-page guidebook laying out the choices facing businesses. The firm recommends that companies aim for a “phased” return policy, rather than bringing their entire workforce back all at once.
In a phased return, Perkins + Will says, the decision to return to the office should be voluntary (with exceptions for roles such as facility support). Leaders should analyze the maximum capacity of their office spaces by floor, and they should start with a small percentage of the maximum as a starting point for return. Also, the guidebook advises, companies should reconsider unassigned seating policies during reentry to avoid scenarios where different employees are sharing desks and office equipment during the transition.
One way to begin bringing people back without crowding the office is through alternating occupancy—with different groups of staff coming in to the office on alternating days or weeks. This allows more employees to participate in reentry, eliminates the need to make an all-or-nothing decision, gives people predictable schedules and allows teams to collaborate in person. However, alternating occupancy also leads to a more complex workplace assignment process and limits flexibility. Plus, some key leaders may want or even need to be in the office every day.
It can be frustrating for business leaders to realize that no solution is ideal, but that’s the nature of the current challenge. Capron notes that interior design work requires some face-to-face interaction, simply because clients need to be able to see samples in real-world conditions. One law firm client is on an alternating schedule, and so Perkins + Will had to split up its own client team to correspond with that client’s alternating teams. For another client, Perkins + Will showed off materials in an otherwise empty office space, with only five people coming in at a time to review them.
“There are no perfect solutions,” says Capron. “You’re trying to create connections, and yet connections are how the virus is transferred. There are going to be advantages and disadvantages to everything.”
The Calendar Keeps Stretching
Capron says that his clients in industries such as insurance, media, finance and law are largely pushing back their return dates to at least the beginning of 2021. Some large companies have already announced that the bulk of their staff will continue to work remotely through the first half of the year.
Although employers continue to see the value of the physical office space (and employees, perhaps, appreciate it more than ever), there are a number of reasons many business leaders feel that it doesn’t make sense for their employees to return before January. For one, many have seen surprisingly high productivity with remote work, and bringing workers back to the office can seem like an unnecessary risk if business is otherwise humming along.
“That’s why we see a lot of companies right now that are delaying,” says Whelan. “They’re being more productive with a remote workforce, and there is more uncertainty about the spread of the virus. At first, the return date for many companies was Labor Day, and then it was January, and now more companies are saying next summer.”
He added, “Some of that has to do with the understanding around the virus itself, and some of it has to do with the challenges the workforce is facing with child care.”
Also, says Capron, many business leaders would rather wait until after the U.S. presidential election and holiday seasons are over to make any major changes to the status quo. He notes that the benefits of returning are somewhat limited until a critical mass of the business world has made the move. After all, an employee can’t collaborate in the office if there’s no one else there to collaborate with.
“If the other half of your team or your client isn’t able to be there in person, then you’re still on a Zoom call, but now you have your mask on,” he says. “So, people are saying, ‘Why don’t I just do this at home, so you can at least see my face?’”
Once approximately half of employees are back in the office, Capron predicts, the business world will hit a tipping point, and the rest of the workforce will quickly follow. “The second you have 50% of people going back, professional FOMO [‘fear of missing out’] is going to kick in, and everybody else will go back,” he says.
Brent Capron is principal and interior design director for the New York office of the design firm Perkins + Will.
Gregory Plavcan is a sustainability specialist with Gensler.
Reentry Presents Green Opportunities
Understandably, most businesses haven’t been laser-focused on their sustainability efforts during much of 2020. The challenges of responding to a pandemic have simply been too great to allow leaders to pay adequate attention to their goals for renewable energy and highly efficient building systems. However, there’s an opportunity for green solutions to take center stage as businesses seek out the safest ways to bring their employees back.
“One thing that’s important is making decisions that also would have been healthy before COVID-19,” says Whelan. “Healthy building considerations were already really important pre-COVID-19, and now they’re going to be even more important. Now, it’s going to be much more around, ‘What’s the access to outdoor space? What is the HVAC system? What technology do we have?’ Employees are going to be asking about things that they would never have asked about in the past.”
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has developed six “Safety First” Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) pilot credits to help building teams provide healthy spaces and to assist with reentry. The pilot credits, which can be used for LEED projects that are either certified or undergoing certification, outline sustainable best practices that align with public health and industry guidelines.
For instance, the Re-enter Your Workspace credit is a tool to assess and plan for reentry, as well as to measure progress once the office space is occupied. The credit identifies sustainable requirements in building operations and human behavior that take precautions against the spread of COVID-19. It also aligns with the Re-occupancy Assessment Tool from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The Pandemic Planning credit, available for LEED for Cities and Communities projects, is intended to help communities control and mitigate the spread of disease. The credit requires a plan that includes a task force responsible for evaluating possible impacts and advising decision makers on short- and long-term challenges of a pandemic.
Additionally, Arc Re-Entry gives owners and facility managers a set of tools to document and benchmark infection control policies and procedures, to collect and analyze related occupant experiences, and to measure and track indoor air quality.
Unilever North American Headquarters was designed by Perkins + Will and includes circadian lighting, biophilic elements and wellness rooms. Photo: Garrett Rowland
Green Cleaning and Indoor Air Quality Are Especially Important
Even many months after the emergence of the novel coronavirus, scientists are still learning about how the virus is spread. Still, most current mitigation efforts revolve around preventing spread via surfaces (such as recommendations for increased hand-washing) or via the air (such as mask requirements).
“When all of the COVID-19 requirements happened and people went home from work, a lot of our project teams and owners started asking questions about how they were going to handle COVID-19 and some of the LEED credits that have to do with operations and human health,” says Gregory Plavcan, a sustainability specialist with Gensler. “The two pilot credits that I think are really strong are the cleaning and disinfecting credit and the indoor air quality credit. I was really pleased to see that there are advances here in more fully including the operations component of the projects we’re working on, rather than just focusing on materials. These credits focus more on operations, and that gets at how the changes are going to affect human beings.”
The Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Space LEED Safety First pilot credit requires facilities to create a policy and implement procedures that follow green cleaning best practices that support a healthy indoor environment and worker safety. The credit also requires procedures and training for cleaning personnel, occupant education and other services that are within the management team’s control.
The Managing Indoor Air Quality During COVID-19 credit builds on existing LEED indoor air quality requirements and credits. This pilot credit requires building teams to ensure indoor air quality systems are operating as designed and to determine temporary adjustments to ventilation that may minimize the spread of COVID-19 through the air. The credit also covers increased ventilation and air filtration, physical distancing of occupants, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of air quality.
“Operable windows will help dilute the virus and keep your air clean,” notes Capron. “Natural daylight helps your own vitamin growth. If you’re healthier and happier, you’ll have a stronger immune system. The more you can use healthy practices in the design of your space, the more of an advantage you’re going to have when you go back.”
Viacom CBS Photo: Eric Laignel
The Only Constant Is Change
Unless and until COVID-19 is eradicated completely, workplace reentry seems destined to remain something of a moving target.
According to CBRE’s survey, most respondents think the state of the business environment will improve or stay the same over the next six months, and the vast majority say they’re confident in their ability to formulate a long-term real estate strategy today. However, 72% of respondents say that the COVID-19 era will continue to have a “very significant” or “somewhat significant” impact on long-term real estate strategy five years from now.
“Your vision for the future is one thing,” says Whelan. “But to say, ‘I know how to do that right now,’ or ‘I know who’s going to be remote, or which geographies are going to be most affected,’ that’s where a lot of the discovery is happening right now. I think it’s going to take longer than five months of a remote work world to really see the effects of not having that in-office interaction.”
While Capron believes remote work will lessen over time, he also expects to see some long-lasting changes as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, especially around green improvements. “I think there will be some long-standing systemic things that we’re going to incorporate into our designs, like the materials you’re using to keep your space clean,” he says.
However, Capron says, businesses will have to monitor and reevaluate their reentry plans in real time. A company might bring its employees back, for instance, only to realize that they’re less efficient in the transition environment than they were at home. “It’s about getting constant feedback to see how things are going,” he says.
Different sports leagues are taking different approaches to resuming play. For all of them, though, it will likely be a while before screaming fans again pack stadiums and arenas.
The National Basketball Association placed its players, coaches and staff in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World to keep COVID-19 out. Major League Baseball eschewed a bubble, and its season appeared in danger early on, when outbreaks forced games to be postponed, but then things seemed to get back on track. The Big Ten was planning to play out the football season, and then it wasn’t—and then it was again.
For sports fans, updates about the coronavirus have become nearly as big a part of following their favorite teams as batting averages and the win/loss column.
“We’re seeing so many different outcomes across sports,” says Brett Blumberg, director of sustainable events and analytics for the Green Sports Alliance. “The short answer is no, we have not seen a consensus across leagues. Each league is opening up at a different pace with a different approach.”
While some stadiums are welcoming back limited numbers of fans, Blumberg notes, the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team wasn’t even allowed to play in its own stadium—and instead played its games across the border, in Buffalo, New York.
To help teams and leagues navigate the crisis, the Green Sports Alliance issued a playbook called “Get Ready to Play.” The resource guide outlines strategies and tactics for cleaning, occupant screening, social distancing and other steps sports venues can take to keep players, coaches and fans safe. As in other sectors, Blumberg says, the COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for sports venues to embrace sustainable practices.
“Certainly, green cleaning is a huge opportunity right now,” Blumberg says. “If you have sustainability objectives, and green cleaning is not yet a part of that, getting effective green cleaning products should be a top priority.” There are also opportunities, Blumberg says, to install contactless water fixtures (which can both conserve water and prevent the spread of viruses), and to test more sustainable concessions. “If you have fewer fans in the stadium and fewer products, you can experiment with some more sustainable options,” he says.
Blumberg notes that some stadiums with limited fans are encouraging or mandating digital ordering for concessions. This not only limits physical proximity, but it also lets fans stay in their seats and catch more of the game. As a result, Blumberg predicts, such changes could have a lasting impact on the fan experience, even after the pandemic abates.
Even with fans locked out of some stadiums, Blumberg predicts that they will be eager to once again don their jerseys and paint their faces in support of their teams when it’s safe to do so, rather than staying in their living rooms and watching games on TV.
“These in-person fan experiences, it’s really hard to replicate those online or at home,” he says. “This need for connection, when you’re around a group of like-minded people—even just supporting a sports team—that’s something that’s so visceral that it’s not going to go away.”