Until there is a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, it’s clear that workplaces, particularly dense offices in major cities, will have to make some changes for employees to return. This need to adjust the office environment for employee safety comes at a time when budgets are straining under a recession and lost revenue. Planning and making good use of the remaining time during which employees are working from home can help reduce costs and get your workplace functioning more quickly.
As employees start to return to offices, some companies will find they need less space than before. Some workers who went remote during the pandemic will want to stay remote in the long term. Other companies will require more square footage to provide adequate spacing between workers. Now is a great time to assess which category your business falls into.
For companies with open plan offices, providing at least six feet between workers was always a good idea to reduce noise and distraction, long the primary complaints of open-plan detractors. One of the reasons the open-plan office came into favor in the first place was as a cost-saving measure compared with traditional workplaces where everyone has a door. With a need to space workers by at least six feet, that calculation may have shifted.
For the first time in decades, companies in locations with high real- estate prices may find it more cost-effective to provide individual offices. With advances in modular glass walls, it’s now possible to create tiny offices that don’t feel claustrophobic. One recent project my team designed in Boston has 64 square-foot offices, which would not be a practical design choice without sound-blocking, durable glass that only just arrived on the market.
A middle-ground option between an open plan and individual offices can be modular glass partitions that extend higher than traditional cubicles and offer more protection from coughs and sneezes in the adjoining workstation without creating a sense of isolation.
Those who take pride in their office design may hear the word “modular” and balk; however, we have found that several suppliers are creating modular building materials that are quite compatible with high-end, custom-designed offices. These are quality materials and not typically the least expensive option, though they are usually the fastest, which could present an advantage toward getting the workplace functioning again quickly.
Companies that wait until governments lift restrictions to begin preparing their offices for the return of workers will lose valuable time in the transition. As the pandemic subsides, there is likely to be a rush to get things built, creating competition for builders and materials. The further along in the process you can advance while your team is working remotely, the stronger your position will be to bring them back in the office quickly.
For the first time in decades, companies in locations with high real- estate prices may find it more cost-effective to provide individual offices.
Architects and designers are among the sectors of the economy that are still functioning remotely. 3D surveying technology can allow design professionals to capture high-resolution images of your workplace and create very detailed plans while working from home. These drawings can be turned around more quickly now than if you wait to set the design phase in motion until after restrictions are lifted.
While planning is possible anywhere, the ability to build currently varies by location. For example, New York state has shut down most construction. Nearby, Connecticut, on the other hand, has not. In areas where building is still taking place, the numbers we are seeing on bids from contractors are much lower than usual. If your office — or one or more of your satellite offices — is in a location where restrictions have not halted construction, engaging a builder soon. That will almost certainly get you the lowest possible price on both labor and materials.
If your organization was on the verge of occupying or leasing a new space before the pandemic hit, it might seem risky to move ahead with that plan in the face of such economic uncertainty. However, there may also be a new opportunity to collaborate with a commercial landlord.
Landlords are desperate to keep the tenants they have and attract new ones. They may be open to sharing redesign costs if your workplace requires significant changes to bring employees back or if you need assistance building out a new space. It’s certainly worth a discussion. Similarly, if your organization leases commercial real estate, you may want to team up with your tenants and get creative about how you can ensure a long-term partnership that will outlast this recession.
Anthony Amenta is a co-founding partner at Amenta Emma Architects with offices in Boston, New York, and Hartford specializing in workplace, retail, senior living, and education design.