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How Multifamily Design is Adapting to Remote Work

The conversation around the shift from workplace to workspace often gets stuck on how the office is transitioning to meet the evolving needs of employees. But it isn’t just offices that are adjusting. Like their office-owning counterparts, multifamily landlords and operators are studying shifts in workplace strategy, planning new ways to design layouts and apply technology to support the growing work from home population. 

The pandemic has given the multifamily sector an unprecedented opportunity to shift its perspective as residents’ needs changed and grew. On top of the flood of packages and deliveries, complexes were forced to implement and enforce social distancing and hygiene policies for residents stuck at home. There were also the needs of the residents who are now working from their units full time that needed to be met. To help overcome the new challenges, technology adoption at multifamily properties has accelerated. Quality WiFi in each unit and in common spaces became paramount. Community workspaces required enhanced print and document abilities, video connections, and presentation technology. 

The shift to working from home won’t end with the pandemic, requiring more conference rooms and workspaces at multifamily communities. The shift to working from home means apartments are becoming more like commercial office space. No one knows how permanent the work from home trend will be. It’s safe to say most suddenly remote workers will return to the office in some capacity, but the number of people working from home will permanently increase, sustaining a modest increase in more remote and flexible scheduling. Newmark Research found a 2.8 fold increase in remote job postings on LinkedIn coupled with a 60 percent increase in remote job searches, indicating the remote work trend is here to stay. How large the trend will be is a tough question. At best, 37 percent of American jobs can be performed remotely, according to a study by the University of Chicago. Because research shows remote work is mostly done at home 80 percent of the time, improving the remote work experience. 

Developers are thinking critically about what the future of multifamily complexes will look like. Newmark’s research shows 14 percent of units were retooled in major projects to accommodate more space for working. Post Brothers, a multifamily developer based in Philadelphia, decided to add more co-working space instead of entertainment amenities at properties under construction as a result of conditions. 

Another large multifamily landlord, Greystar, is adapting to the demand for work-from-home spaces by updating layouts to include working nooks, booths, and pods. Community workspaces are being redesigned to include fewer communal tables, using the space instead for more private work areas. Updating the materials is also critical, with more virtual meetings and conference calls, remote workers need appropriate acoustics, lighting, and background. 

Experts surveyed by Newmark said they expect the one-bedroom-plus-den unit layout to become more popular. The push for smaller units meant the layout had fallen out of vogue leading up to the pandemic, but with more renters needing a place to work, the extra space is becoming an attractive option for those who need it but don’t want the full cost of a second bedroom. For residents that don’t work from home, the extra space can function as a crafting station or dining area. Sometimes extra space isn’t needed when clever in-unit design can help. Units with extra space could come equipped with a greenscreen and built-ins for printers and office supplies. Nooks combined with innovative furniture can create the perfect little space. 

Designers at Gensler think ‘lock-off’ units could also become a trend in the United States. Popular across Asia, the layout incorporates a secondary unit designed like a studio, with a small bathroom and kitchenette. The separate space can be used for work, housing in-laws or helping pay the rent. Outdoor spaces like patios and balconies are also taking off in popularity in light of the pandemic. Changes don’t have to be drastic. Sliding doors and screens can be used to create separate spaces with little square foot cost. The collective result is larger floor plates to accommodate larger and more flexible spaces. 

“If it’s done right, I don’t think it has to cost any more than what it’s already costing right now. Every multifamily developer around town is already trying to think about the most competitive amenity package that they can offer their residents. They are always trying to one-up each other,” Gensler Senior Designer Michael Estes told D Magazine. “If they just redirect some of those resources that they were going to spend toward addressing the work from home scenario, I think that puts them at an advantage, from the leasing standpoint. I don’t think it’s going to hurt their bottom line.”

Spaces are becoming more flexible at the office and at home. The pandemic has accelerated that trend, as the line between work and home blurs more than ever before. Practically every aspect of real estate these days is mixed-use, from the developments themselves to how tenants are choosing to use them. The best multifamily layouts will be the ones that are most flexible to the evolving and diverse needs of renters. Not everyone is going to want to work from home, but that doesn’t mean they can’t utilize more space for other activities. Younger renters are converting space meant for dining into workspaces, forgoing a table for a desk, or using that space for workout equipment. Good multifamily layout design is providing space like a canvas for renters to create their own masterpieces. Building in extra space for a home office can be marketed as a different type of space to different types of renters. 

To accommodate that creativity, developers can add larger windows to allow more natural light and design layouts around noise cancellation to ensure a quiet workspace. Some people working from home take calls in their closets simply because that’s where the acoustics are best. Designing multifamily units with acoustics in mind can help create better workspaces. 

Working from home used to be a luxury, a home office was a sort of status symbol, wood-paneled walls full of bookshelves to display achievements and manuscripts. Noe home offices are becoming a necessity, especially for a growing class of young working professionals who rent. The most forward-thinking multifamily developers are coming up with ways to bring quality workspaces into units without sacrificing too much livable space. Putting more thought into multifamily layouts and unit mixes that attract working professionals with an at-home workspace can help set a community apart. 

The hard part will be making sure developers and designers don’t overcorrect. Change is coming but how much is still unclear. Multifamily owners and operators should pay close attention to what major employers in their markets are doing to steer decisions. In the competitive world of apartment leasing, providing a top-notch work from home experience could be the leg up a residential complex needs. As our work and home lives blur, so too do our home and work spaces.

Associate Editor
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