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Office Space After Coronavirus: the New Norm with Remote Workers

Former common areas may be transformed into smaller pod areas for individual use.

By Steve Kimball, emersion Design

The impact of COVID-19 on workplaces will continue long after the virus has subsided. A majority of large corporations have embraced remote working, with many in the technology space such as Google, Twitter and Microsoft announcing they’ll keep a majority of employees permanently working from home.

But it’s not just big technology companies that are taking this approach. New research from Harvard Business School cites at least 16 percent of the U.S. workforce will be remote moving forward. Additionally, a study by 451 Research shows that number could go as high as 67 percent being remote. Jobs in technology, healthcare, customer service, education, accounting and sales are considered the most likely to shift permanently to remote work.

Steve Kimball, emersion Design

What does that mean for traditional office space? There will still be robust office environments, although changes are coming. These vary from what is in the office to where it will now be located.

Downsize, upgrade

Cost savings achieved by less square footage needs will enable companies to relocate to a more desirable location, offer additional amenities onsite and upgrade the office environment. While less space is required, companies can use the savings to upgrade the office with better furniture, finishes, acoustics and mechanicals such as improved heating, cooling and air filtration systems. Solid surface (stone or quartz) replaces laminate and tile replaces carpet for aesthetics and easier cleaning.

Companies may also choose to upgrade location. While the space in the trendy location may have been cost preventative before, lower square footage requirements may now make that space affordable.

Footprint for safe distancing

While some companies already had floorplans that accommodated ample distancing, that was not the case for most. Renovating office space to allow six-foot spacing will replace current shields and temporary desks.

Front-facing workstations will be replaced by back-to-back facing while the number of meeting rooms will increase, but with reduced capacity. Former common areas will be transformed to smaller pod areas to allow safer environments that better control occupancy.

Increased technology

More data will be moved to the Cloud for easier access for remote employees. Enhanced communication technology will also be required as more remote workers become permanent. While phone calls may have worked in a temporary setting, more robust visual communication tools will be embraced to allow productive and professional meetings with employees and clients. Look for smart screens and cameras in all meeting rooms to replace basic laptop systems as the preferred method for effective visual communication.

Automation and voice technology could also play a role. Technology like Amazon Alexa for Business, for example, could become a new interface and remove the need for physically pushing a button or touching a surface in an office such as a door keypad. There is ample voice tech in warehouses today but very little in office settings. Expect that to change.

Lack of central office

With more employees working remotely, the city center may no longer be the default location for office space. With fewer, or potentially no commuting office employees, a central location may no longer be required.

Look for companies to explore new site options whether in the city, the suburbs or possibly even rural locations as they can move away from centralized office employee requirements and pursue new areas offering workforce access and development for skilled labor. This also introduces new opportunities to co-locate office and production space. 

Steve Kimball is a principal at emersion Design and leads the science & technology practice of the Cincinnati-based firm. This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine.

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