For U.S. companies, the lessons learned about how to stay productive and profitable during the pandemic have been hard won. Because so many businesses have adapted so well to these conditions, with many employees remaining highly productive and delivering on time for clients from their home offices and roving laptops, some observers of trends in workplace and commercial real estate are ringing the death knell for the resource-consuming in-person office. A web search for the words “the office is dead” turns up headlines with similar phrasing from CNN, Fast Company, Commercial Observer and Financial Times, among others.
But reports of the demise of the office are greatly exaggerated. There is certainly a major paradigm shift under way, but it is important to be clear-eyed about what is really happening. For instance, a survey this past summer by professional services firm KPMG made headlines with the statistic that almost 70% of CEOs responding have plans to reduce their real estate footprint for office.
But anyone who works closely with corporate clients on workplace strategy, as we at Dyer Brown have done for 50-plus years, already saw this change coming as more companies look to hybrid structures that combine in-person and remote work to provide employees with flexibility. The pandemic just forced companies to make this decision sooner than they might have otherwise.
It’s also worth noting that reducing the amount of office space doesn’t mean closing 100% of offices. No matter how productive individuals may be at home, certain kinds of work require in-person interaction—especially the kind of collaborative work that leads to innovation and a competitive edge.
There can be no doubt that the pandemic has brought us to a pivot point. Companies of all sizes are taking stock and thinking about how to evolve quickly enough to survive and thrive, while leading corporations continue to ask the tough questions about what goes into a productive, healthy workplace.
With our clients top of mind—building owners and operators, as well as the blue-chip global brands and smaller companies we serve—our team of workplace strategy experts and designers have been conducting research and investigating new models for office planning, and we have identified five key drivers for decisionmakers. These will remain operative for the next several years, as the corporate and commercial real estate worlds continue to grapple with a continuing pandemic challenge, and the “new normal” that will eventually emerge on the other side.
1. Purpose, not social distance.
To focus solely on social distancing is well-intentioned and demonstrates care for employee wellbeing, but it also misses the point of having an effective office that supports the workflow. Leaders need to make moves that are creative, strategic and purposeful, solving multiple problems at once. For example, this is an excellent time to consider why employees and visitors are coming into the office setting, because those reasons are not the same as they were last year. Understanding this will produce a more efficient use of space.
For example, employees working in-person at the office may be there specifically for collaborative exercises and meetings. If so, there’s probably no point in dedicating significant space to workstations and desking, no matter if they are arranged carefully for social distance.
2. Work modes shape space.
We have all heard about how schools have attempted to adapt to the pandemic and keep their doors open, by staggering in-person schedules to limiting occupancy. Businesses can adapt in ways that are specific to their culture and workflow by collecting data on the amount of time employees work from home versus in-office. Analyzing the data will reveal the mix of productive work habits, so that the project team can design a workplace that supports the ideal hybrid model.
One important note about this is to remember that your needs may change. It’s critical to consider how demands for infrastructure and space could shift in the near or mid-term, so ask yourself and your team: Would the proposed workplace be flexible enough to support a rapid move to all-remote or all in-person work modes?
3. Pilot programs create value.
For larger companies with an extensive real estate portfolio, trying out new ways of working in smaller, lower-stakes locations (typically less than 10,000 square feet) is a time-tested approach to stable evolution. Leaders can collect data and track lessons learned from pilot studies and respond by rolling out the most successful and efficacious programs companywide, typically with a phased plan.
4. Budget for unexpected change.
Keep in mind that a company-wide rollout of a pilot program can be fraught, especially in the current environment. Employees already on edge because of the pandemic will enter an unfamiliar work environment and be asked to adapt quickly without loss of productivity. Introduced at scale, there will always be wrinkles that the pilot did not hint at. In our experience, savvy corporate leaders are the ones who budget for post-occupancy tweaks to adjust the space after move-in. We recommend using surveys, workshops and other engagement to anticipate points of friction, but being financially prepared for corrections and modifications is essential.
5. Think long-term.
As the adage goes, the one constant is change. A company may be thinking one way now and find that employee needs and preferences change significantly in as short a period as five years.
Both workplace and workflow inevitably shift and evolve, and leadership must respond by adjusting to how space is used. Including flexibility and consideration of likely future changes in your planning will help you to communicate and orchestrate effectively to help your staff adapt, stay productive, and use the work environment safely and effectively. Ultimately, this means you are more likely to retain a competitive edge.
Our clients hear from us constantly that they need to think about what the landscape could look like five or 10 years from now, and to plan for that. The five key drivers for decision-making presented here are presented to help avoid an all-too-common trap of the COVID-19 era—focusing on a time six to 12 months from now when, hopefully, things get back to normal. The best and most cost-effective planning always emerges from long-term visioning, resulting in workplaces that continue to be safe, healthy and productive well into the future.
About the Author
Ashley L. Dunn, AIA, is the director of workplace for Dyer Brown, where she has completed projects ranging from 4,000 to 400,000 square feet. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Dunn has been with Dyer Brown for nearly 15 years and is the youngest director in the firm’s 50-year history.