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The Office Strikes Back

Resilient office spaces are the future of work

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Offices have come a long way in the last year. With COVID-19 imperiling in-person work and in particular crowded spaces, our workplaces have had to evolve or die. Some of these changes have been drastic and unfortunate, like the closing of amenity spaces or the introduction of one-way hallways. But others have been more fortuitous, like the rise in adoption of flexible workplace practices. And despite a panoply of headlines to the contrary, offices are far from dead. 

Every argument that we’ve seen as to why offices are going extinct has fallen short. Remote work can replace the office for many, but for many others it is simply not enough. There are too many distractions, too few ways to easily collaborate, and too little socialization in our bedrooms and home offices for many teams around the world. And despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19, many companies have returned to the office, particularly in parts of the world with low case numbers, as need-to-do work continues to pile up. Even amongst the many companies that have gone remote, lots of the biggest ones have an end date in sight for their universal remote schemes. 

Our offices will not emerge from 2020 unscathed, though. The pandemic has shown that our offices must evolve and transform if they are to survive. Evolve, with improvements to the systems that we are already used to seeing in our buildings, like elevators, visitor management systems and boilers. And as we discuss in our newest research report, transform into truly resilient workplaces that reward their occupants and enable effective work no matter what is going on outside the doors.

Resiliency takes many forms. For one thing, it means being resilient to fluctuating demand. Offices need to be able to contain costs when occupancy is low, while still allowing for fully productive use when every desk is full. This is why flexible workspaces are well-positioned to thrive in an uncertain future. Occupiers also tend to like them since they can allow for cost-cutting based on smaller office footprints.

Creating flexible offices is not so simple, though. It takes more than just adding a few hot-desking stations to properly craft a truly flexible workplace experience. For one thing, landlords need to be able to communicate with tenants who may be in the office, out of the office or somewhere in between at all times.

While flexible space is a hallmark of the modern workplace, there are more other major components that make an office truly resilient. Foremost among these is safety. If a workplace is not safe for its occupiers, there is no way that it could achieve its role as a productive space for the people that work in it. The story of office safety is also the story of our changing state of knowledge about what exactly the coronavirus is, how it infects people, and how to respond to it. We now know that the primary source of infection is transmitted directly from infected people, via particles spread through the air. Enhanced air filtration systems are consequently a hallmark of the modern resilient office. 

Establishing better filtration systems is easier said than done, though. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is very small, at up to 1.5 microns in diameter. Meanwhile, the air filters that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends office buildings use don’t filter out particles less than 3 microns in size. Upgrading filters is no walk in the park, since more restrictive filters require systems that can generate greater air pressure.

There are some novel solutions out there, like the use of UV-C lights to disinfect spaces. The jury is still not out on bipolar ionization filters, which have proven to be able to remove particles from the air but can potentially generate their own harmful byproduct gases. It’s not just about filtration, where air travels through a room is also really important since it has ramifications for how much air mixes in the room and who is in its path on the way to the HVAC system. For many offices out there, the biggest aid to resiliency will simply come in the form of knowing more about the air quality in each room. 

While safety is the most existential need of the resilient office, a good workplace must also be intelligent, able to respond to changing uses and automatically address a variety of occupier needs. Offices also must be efficient in both their own mechanical systems. Now more than ever, IoT-connected sensors can be valuable tools to help understand occupancy trends and promote social distancing amongst space users. According to Prasan Kale, CEO of the tenant experience platform Rise Buildings, “When you automate a building, it creates real efficiencies and you can get a lot of useful data, but automation is only one part of it. It is extremely important to have comprehensive data across all aspects of your property.” To achieve that, resilient offices need to strive towards cloud-based data solutions that break down silos and allow for true software integrations that seamlessly connect data from source to output. To achieve this, offices will have to find ways to connect all of their systems, either by cobbling together disparate systems with tools like Zapier or by using technology solutions that have created integrations with each other. 

An efficient office is one that empowers its users to make use of it with the least amount of resources and effort required. First, such a workplace has optimizations to reduce its energy consumption. While such implementations might seem obvious to install, our existing office buildings often do not take energy efficiency into consideration at all. According to Patrick O’Shei, NYSERDA’s Director of Market Development, “Energy was used to condition spaces to be ‘occupied’ by those who were working somewhere else. It was structural in nature, based on how things were designed to work.” Building systems often have mechanical components like boilers that are difficult to turn off and tenant controls spaces are often unconnected to the building’s main system. Adding to this complication, many office leases include service level agreements that require them to be climate controlled no matter what the occupancy of the space. A resilient office building features technology like high-efficiency mechanical systems and better modern management practices like shared utility costs that bring managers and occupiers in line to push for better energy efficiency. 

The other side of the efficiency proposition is about access. Buildings that are efficient, and consequently resilient, do not impose unnecessary roadblocks on their occupiers using their space. Doors, for instance, should be connected to smart access control systems that allow for remote locking and unlocking, visitor check-in should be digitized to reduce long lines in the lobby. Elevators should be optimized to more effectively ferry occupiers to their destinations without wasting time taking one or two people at a time while many more wait for the car to return. 

Offices that manifest these adaptations show that even though the COVID-19 outbreak, shared workspaces are far from dead. We saw plenty of headlines earlier this year that claimed office buildings are going extinct in the face of easier remote work and mandated social distancing, but that is not the only modern office reality. Our experience through the pandemic has come to show that yes, many people want to work mostly or entirely from home. But many others, such as busy parents, people who do a lot of collaborative work, and workers who simply prefer to be around lots of other people still have a need for an office. The pandemic will not kill the office but it will force them to adapt, in the way they operate, communicate, and fit into our work lives.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research
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