ULI: Visions for Post-Pandemic Workplaces

October 21, 2020

The office isn’t going anywhere, according to industry experts who spoke during the annual Urban Land Institute conference last week, conducted virtually. But to weather the ongoing pandemic and transition into what upcoming offices might look like, big changes must be considered.

Factors such as building structure, technology, and how we think about using space underlie an overhaul of office design, and key factors such as health, wellness, and equity also come into play in a new way, in the real estate industry and broadly.

“We have to make the in-office experience more compelling than ever,” said panelist Brett Hautop, senior director of global design and build at LinkedIn.

The pandemic underscored the fact that, regardless of industry, many work tasks can be completed from home. This is especially true in the real estate industry, said panelist Giselle Bonilla, director of global real estate for Zendesk. Pieces of the business, such as a review of all the paperwork that goes into the transaction and the scheduling necessary appointments, can be easily accomplished over Zoom.

“Still, design meetings and collaboration are another story,” Bonilla said.

In the past, the office was thought of as a place to engage in individual and collaborative tasks. Office spaces have generally included a desk for each person and a few conference spaces in which to hold meetings. In the future, though, the physical office space will be more of a tool rather than a hub, especially since employers are embracing flexibility, said panelist Kelly Dubisar, design director at Gensler.

“Choice and autonomy will lead the way,” Dubisar said. “Companies will adapt and empower their workforce.”

Bonilla said Zendesk is already adopting major changes, allowing for a hybrid schedule so that employees can work from home a few days a week and be in the office when necessary. An office space that supports this new, hybrid work schedule will require a design that addresses an entirely new set of needs.

Gone are the days of the one-desk-per-person model. Rectangular conference rooms will likely prove ineffective during collaborative meetings in which both in-person and remote team members participate. But figuring out how to solve the problems of equity and camaraderie in this new paradigm will prove challenging.

For one, said Hao Ko, managing director of Gensler’s San Francisco location, the office leveled the playing field for employees, providing them with the tools they needed to do their jobs.

With so many employees spending working time at home now and in the future, employers and managers need to think about what tools, technology, and resources workers need to have at home to ensure they can do their jobs.

Historically, the real estate industry has been slow to adopt technology, said panelist Clelia Warburg Peters, a venture partner at Bain Capital. The pandemic is accelerating the pace at which the industry uses technology, and it will continue to do so. “Proptech,” as it’s called, has long been used on the residential side of real estate, she said, citing Trulia and other aggregators as examples for which proptech can enhance the customer experience.

Now, she said, it’s time to adopt technology in a broader, more platform-based approach, which will allow the office to function with hybrid teams.

Another issue future office space must address is physical and mental health. Coping mechanisms will help employees navigate the uncertainties of a reopening workplace.

Having time and space outdoors is a great way to decompress, which is a concept that works well in future office space, said Dubisar of Gensler. If a building does not allow for outdoor space for teams to collaborate, making use of nearby green spaces, parks, or open spaces might provide another option.

And then there’s the challenge of making work-from-home employees feel as though they are valuable parts of the office community and fully able to collaborate. It will take design and strategy to address this problem, which, Hautop said, is nearly impossible to test until the pandemic subsides and companies return to a predominantly in-person office environment.

Many brokers and real estate professionals have already been weighing the pros and cons of the future office and taking steps to figure out what the new office model will look like. Though much is still unknown, some solid ideas are underway. (Read more: The Real Estate Office of the Future.)