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When Office Doors Finally Reopen, What Can We Expect to Find?

By Paul Bubny

The commercial real estate industry has been collectively working overtime in preparation for the day restrictions are lifted and the doors of commercial properties swing open to welcome back employees, clients and visitors. Developers, brokerage firms, architects, interior designers, property managers, and engineers are addressing a dizzying array of details including spacing, shared-office environments, air quality of HVAC systems, cleaning/sterilization protocols and how many people are safely allowed inside an elevator. CEOs are also partnering with human resources staff to establish policies for teleworking and dealing with employees who remain fearful to leave their house.

“Every indication dictates a slow and measured comeback that will not occur immediately once given the all-clear sign,” explained Ken Fellows, partner, advisory services for Edge, a full-service commercial real estate firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. “In our daily conversations with clients and prospects, we detect a wait-and-see pattern emerging with every industry sector thinking differently about environments. With no precedent, the reality is that no one can accurately predict the changes to follow.”

Most industry experts can agree that fear will play a significant role in any mapped-out plan. Because telework situations have functioned admirably, but is not considered a long-term solution, most companies are not expected to place pressure on employees to hurry back, especially when they sense resistance and liability.

Instead, the industry is focusing on controlling entry points to the building, drawing up visitor and elevator policies and tweaking office infrastructure. This includes things as simple as reducing the number of seats around the conference room table to more costly options involving the installation of touchless entry, exit and common area systems. A hard look is also being taken at the after-hours cleaning crew, including testing workers and heightening the level of their activities.

“I anticipate no-touch systems will become the new norm for designing building common areas and tenant suites,” commented Joseph A. Sutton, Jr., managing partner at Edge. “Doors will have arm hooks and kick plates rather than handles. Faucets, dispensers, vending machines, and toilets will have infrared sensors for operation. HVAC fresh air exchange, together with protocols for cleaning and sterilization, will be redesigned and increase building operating costs.

“Yes, it will come as an added cost, but welcomed by its occupants,” Sutton added.

“Between the tenants and landlords with whom I’ve spoken, there seems to be a consensus on a phased-in approach once employees start returning to work. This will obviously vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and industry sector,” added Marc Balamaci, partner and co-founder, tenant advisory for Edge. “Patience is key for the time being. The exact configuration of the office environment remains open to debate, with certain commercial industry members stressing the need for strict social distancing to preserve the suggested six-foot spacing, and even control of the flow and direction in which employees and visitors will be allowed to maneuver in the internal spaces.”

“Our conversations are suggesting that employees will be reluctant to sit closely next to one another, at least at the beginning. In addition, we believe tenants will look at increasing the standard amount of office space for each employee. Currently, the ‘rule of thumb’ is 200 square feet per person,” Fellows said. “We expect certain companies may want to take on additional square footage by as much as a 25% increase to accommodate safe social distancing.”

He added, “The trend in the industry for years has been higher-density open areas, and the question will now revert to ‘will tenants look to go back to private offices for safety reasons?’ There is no simple answer, as tenants with existing leases may want to look at renovation in places where expansion can be problematic.”

“If cube farms don’t become a complete thing of the past, they will at the very least become far less in vogue,” Balamaci added. “Companies may likely be expected to implement alternate work schedule programming with a decrease in overall density. Certain employees will continue to have their dedicated workspaces, but others will not, while functioning in a shared environment.”

“In general, every aspect of interacting with real estate is being examined and there is no shortage of opinions about the future. Companies are still involved with real estate decisions locally and we expect a rapid recovery once the dust settles,” Fellows said.

“It seems the market has hit a big pause button until we gain more clarity on the flattening of the curve. From the tenant side, companies who have expiring leases still need to make some kind of decision, even if it’s kicking the can down the proverbial road for three to six months,” Balamaci concluded.

Adaptability and flexibility – from companies, employees and the actual office spaces – will be key as the business community navigates and comes to grip with realities of the new normal in commercial office space, say the Edge team members. Some changes, including signage that explains cleaning procedures, will emerge quickly. Technological advances, including beefed-up HVAC systems and the incorporation of touchless systems, will be implemented over time.

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About Paul Bubny

Paul Bubny serves as Senior Content Director for Connect Commercial Real Estate, a role to which he brings 13-plus years’ experience covering the commercial real estate industry and 30-plus years in business-to-business journalism. In this capacity, he oversees daily operations while also reporting on both local/regional markets and national trends, covering individual transactions across all property types, as well as delving into broader subject matter. He produces 15-20 daily news stories per day and works with the Connect team and clients to develop longer-form content, ranging from Q&As to thought-leadership pieces. Prior to joining Connect, Paul was Managing Editor for both Real Estate Forum and GlobeSt.com at American Lawyer Media, where he oversaw operations at both publications while also producing daily news and feature-length articles. His tenure in B2B publishing stretches back into the print era, and he has served as Editor in Chief on four national trade publications. Since 1999, Paul has volunteered as the newsletter editor of passenger rail advocacy groups (one national, one local).