Outdoor Amenities Will Drive Tenant Experience in Post-COVID-19 Office Market, Says ULI Panel

by Taylor Williams

Outdoor amenity spaces will be central to enhancing the experiences of office users in a post-COVID-19 world in which requirements for fresh air, distancing and minimal contact of shared surfaces will all be elevated.

A trio of real estate professionals addressed the shift in the functionality of common areas in office buildings as part of a webinar titled “Why Experience is the Next Big Office Amenity.” Urban Land Institute (ULI), a research and advocacy organization for the commercial real estate industry, hosted the event on Monday, June 8.

Demand for various outdoor amenities in office properties — food courts, water features, hiking trails — was certainly strong before the pandemic began. With the nation’s economy experiencing 128 months of consecutive job growth through February and unemployment levels at historic lows, office-using firms were engaged in fierce battles for talent recruitment and retention.

Being able to offer a range of amenities — both indoor and outdoor — that made the average workday more enjoyable was a key part of winning those battles. In the post-pandemic era, the presence of useful outdoor spaces can also deliver the added health benefits of access to fresh air and sunlight, which can improve respiratory function and general immunity.

“Pre-COVID, there was already strong demand for outdoor spaces, even in markets where outdoor spaces can only be enjoyed for a few months out of the year,” said panelist Annie Bergeron, design director and principal in the Toronto office of global architecture firm Gensler. “We’ve found that many companies consider access to outdoor space to be hugely important, and that will continue in the post-COVID world.”

Panelist Jonathan McLaurin, senior director at USAA Real Estate, the investment arm of San Antonio-based insurance company USAA, noted that quality outdoor space represents a type of amenity that had been somewhat undersupplied prior to the pandemic.

“We talk to a lot of tenant rep brokers about exactly what their clients want, and cool outdoor space is probably the biggest thing,” he said. “That’s something a lot of buildings haven’t offered over the last few years, and we’re making a big push within our portfolio to have buildings with exceptional outdoor space. Simple things like finding ways to energize the outdoor furniture can make a big difference and help with workplace productivity.”

As companies and employees gradually begin returning to their offices, owners must consider how they can effectively brighten workers’ days with their amenities while still complying with heightened sanitation and social-distancing guidelines. That will require some reimagining of these spaces that were traditionally conceived as mechanisms for bringing people together.

The panel identified several ways in which this could be achieved, including the offering of virtual outdoor fitness classes, adding sport courts to outdoor spaces and instituting contact-free delivery of food truck meals. All of these features should be implemented with less seating and/or greater spacing among users.

Panelist Tom Larance, head of experience management at JLL’s Chicago office, pointed out another health benefit that outdoor spaces can capitalize on the post-pandemic office market: exercise.

“We’re fielding a lot of requests from our landlord clients, and we’ve seen some really beautiful, curated spaces that are also being redesigned to have more tennis courts, squash courts and whatnot,” he said. “We’re seeing these spaces evolve to more than just places to go outside and eat and socialize. We’re studying these spaces carefully and trying to figure out how they can contribute to health and wellness.”

The Larger Experience

Before the pandemic, the amenity factor in the overall office experience was grounded in enjoyment derived from congregation and social interaction. Now the parameters of the experience have now shifted to reflect health and safety.

Amenities spaces in office buildings are, by definition, areas in which traffic is high, personal space is compressed and shared surfaces are plentiful. Reconfiguring ways to minimize crowd concentrations in these spaces, as well as instituting more rigorous cleaning regimens, helps tenants and building staff feel as if they are in control of their safety, the panel concurred.

“People want to feel empowered over their safety as they return to the office,” said Bergeron. “They need to be able to visibly see what landlords are doing to create that power and what employers are doing at the tenancy level.”

Larance noted that part of helping all occupants of buildings to feel safer is to adjust cleaning schedules of amenity spaces to be based on usage rather than time. Minimizing deliveries in and out of buildings, and routing them through contactless points of entry and exit, also represents a means of heightening the perception of safety. Signage and communication that directs occupants to hand sanitizing stations and which clearly details crowd capacities in certain areas constitute another piece of the puzzle.

The panel closed the discussion by noting that part of the office experience is “social capital,” or the senses of trust and empathy that coworkers share and build through various forms of employee collaboration and interaction.

Through conference rooms, tenant lounges and the like, office owners can foster this kind of growth in the workplace and help companies boost productivity among workers. It’s merely a question of doing so with safety and wellness as the top priorities.

“The most innovative teams have the highest levels of trust and empathy,” said Bergeron. “Right now, they’re running on the fumes of the social capital we built before the pandemic, which was built on face-to-face interactions. That is developed from having lunch together, learning about a coworker’s family, etc. We’re getting better at using virtual services to bridge the gaps created from working at home, but that’s not necessarily something that will satisfy tenants in the long run.”

— Taylor Williams


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